Instagram and Value

Last night, I was running and thinking, a combination that is thrust upon me pretty often.  Specifically, I was thinking about a friend who is traveling someplace beautiful, who happens to be a talented photographer.  And I was thinking to myself that I was looking forward to seeing photos trickle through on Instagram. 

Beautiful pictures are pleasant, but in the era of the internet, they’re not exactly scarce.  I can find beautiful high resolution photos of nearly any location, landscape, or event without effort.  Having a personal connection to beautiful pictures – because the surreal landscape is being experienced firsthand by a friend, because the cute toddler is a niece, because the artfully composed shot is taken by an acquaintance who you know puts great thought into these kinds of things – this is what makes Instagram valuable to me.  I almost universally loathe social media, and I love Instagram, for this reason.

But then I remembered:  I uninstalled instagram 2 days ago.  It wasn’t intended to be a permanent removal from my life – I still find a lot of value in instagram, and I’m sure I’ll re-install it in a day or 2.  But I realized (while sitting on the toilet, for context), that I was spending huge amounts of time on the instagram “Explore” tab.  I have never, ever found anything valuable on the explore tab – I only find endless content expertly catered perfectly to distract me, to suck me in, to waste my time and hawk advertising at me.  It’s not interesting shots from friends, visual updates on lives, it’s a drug.  A personalized drug.  I needed to break my habit of opening Instagram and scrolling through nonsense I don’t care about, then waking up 10 minutes, 30 minutes an hour later with no idea what I was doing, or where the time had gone.

Any time on the explore tab and you can see that it’s purposefully designed to suck you in – eliminating friction to viewing images and videos, algorithmically selected for their stickiness and your preferences.  Tearing yourself away from it can be a challenge.

What strikes me is how disconnected the actual value of a service can become from the success metrics of the business.  How the success metrics can be, in fact, diametrically opposed to what users (or at least some cohort of users) actually find valuable. How we could end up in the baffling situation in which a service that I personally find enormous value in, and am willing to defend, fight for, preach about, has, in a (presumed) attempt to better serve me, convinced me to uninstall it.

I’m not totally sure what the takeaway is here.  It’s easy to mockingly accuse the people driving the future of Instagram of missing the point – of being greedy and stupid and shortsighted. Maybe those accusations are valid.  I’m afraid the truth is probably more nuanced: Platforms need to show growth, they need to show improvement, they need to constantly prove that they’re trending in the right direction – this is the default nature of the tech industry, maybe business as a whole.  Showing improvement can often mean inventing measures, metrics, and then executing to improve those metrics. 

It’s not unreasonable that the folks behind Instagram would assume time spent with the app open is a valid analog for how indispensable I find it, and therefore how well they’re doing catering to my needs.  The reality is harder to parse.  How could they measure success if my ideal interaction with the app is to hop on a couple times a day, scroll through a relatively small feed of new pictures, maybe post something myself, and move on?  How could they measure what my cutoff for time spent in the app is – the imaginary line a la price is right in which – if I go over, I’ll suddenly uninstall the app?  I’m not sure what the metric there is, and I imagine attempts at distilling it are quite a bit harder to justify to investors or a board than “Time spent in app” – an easily understood and communicated idea.

Business is hard.  Business where growth is required to appease investors is even harder.

Instagram and the Brand Ambassador

I’m on Instagram a lot.   I’m not generally prone to getting sucked into social media – I don’t use twitter much, I can honestly acknowledge that I never leave Facebook happier than when I enter it, so I don’t spend too much time there.  But Instagram is a different beast.  I enjoy photography – both taking pictures, and looking at them.  The fact that it’s really difficult to share links, and large amounts of text are pretty unwieldy makes it pretty great in my book – there’s just so little opportunity for you to share your terrible political opinion with me.  People try, sure – but it’s far less common than on other platforms.  I don’t follow anyone who posts anything but photography. Very few memes, or political rants – just original content from people I know, or people I find interesting.

But there’s something insidious to Instagram, if you venture much outside people you actually know.

I like the outdoors.  I like skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and just general exploration and travel.  I’m not alone in this, my tastes are certainly not unique or particularly interesting.  So I follow a smattering of popular instagrammers.  They’re people with at least a reasonably good eye for photography, who spend a lot of their time doing interesting things.

But there are some red flags:  Some people have obvious means of supporting themselves through adventure.  Some are obviously just wealthy – family money, business success, whatever.  Some are professionals doing something interesting – pro skiers, mountain bikers, etc.  Some are photographers or filmmakers, sharing content from their work and adventures.

But some aren’t.  They’re just normal-ish people, who like a lot of the same things I like. And this group has the potential to be the most interesting, because they’re the most relatable.  But with followers come power, an audience – and any time you’ve got an audience, there’s danger.  There’s danger because there’s value in a platform.  And with value comes the opportunity for dishonesty.

So my feed is very often full of brand ambassadors, which is fancy talk for “people who get free stuff, and maybe money, because they’ve got an audience”.  And that’s fine – I’m not really opposed to it, except that it undermines what made these people so great, so enjoyable to follow along and live vicariously through.  Their value, their appeal, is in  the honesty and authenticity of whatever they were doing: having an adventure because it’s exactly what they wanted to do, what they were driven to do.  Coming up with a plan for something – a trip, and adventure, maybe just a particular photograph – simply because they wanted to.  They needed to.

Once there are ulterior motives (money and followers), things aren’t so clear.  Motives are tainted.  Now there’s the question: are they doing this because it was their choice, their plan, a manifestation of their passions?  Or are they doing it because they know people will like it? Because followers mean power?  Because a brand will give them money to do it?  Is it real, or is it a narrative they’re selling?

And I think this is a broader question, just another facet of the question about shoes: Why do we do what we do?  Which motives are real, honest, acceptable, and which are unworthy of praise or attention?  Which motives are acceptable to cultivate, and which do we scorn or hide?