Fuck the Algorithm / An opinion piece by Edie Sunday
Fuck the Algorithm (and other barriers imposed on living artists)
If you know who I am at all, there’s only one reason for it: Instagram. You may have seen my work somewhere else or found out about me through interviews and magazine features. You may have even hired me to shoot your campaign because a friend recommended me. But none of that—not one single thing—would have ever happened for me as an artist without Instagram.
Instagram has been instrumental in my own success and the successes of my peers. If you’re part of the majority, like myself and most artists I know, you don’t come from a wealthy family with art-world connections. You didn’t go to a prestigious art school or begin showing your work in galleries before you were hardly out of college. You loved to make art but realized that the art-world is a very exclusive club that doesn’t offer up memberships based on talent alone, sans for maybe one every 5 or so years—and only for absolute (very deserving) prodigies like Ryan McGinley.
So, you always knew that world was not for you, did not want you, and maybe you were what I used to call myself, “a bedroom artist.” What I mean by that is that I’d been making art my entire life, but it never left my bedroom, and it especially never left my home. I didn’t even tell people I made art until I was in my early-twenties, because I had absolutely nothing to show for it (or so I thought). In my younger mind, I thought that making art did not make one deserving of being called an “artist.” For some reason, it felt like someone else had to bestow that title upon me for it to mean anything.
And then came Instagram. I resisted “getting an Instagram” for about a year or two after it gained popularity, mostly because I was disinterested in social media as a whole. But the day finally came when I had been creating so much and was finally somewhat proud of the things I had made. So, I joined Instagram to share these photos and words with my closest friends, since they had always wanted to look at my art and writing but I would never allow it.
It was easier through a phone screen. It also made me think back to Flickr, a place where I briefly had a profile when I was around 17. I think I posted all of three photos before determining I couldn’t handle feeling so exposed and deleted the account. In retrospect, it makes sense why I could use Instagram but not Flickr: It was so very low stakes to post my photos to a platform that was in no way promoting itself as a place for artists to show their work. It felt safer there.
Things stayed this way for a while, too—I had about twenty-something followers and they were all people I knew in my real life. It was scary but lovely for my friends to finally see this part of me that I had kept so hidden for so long.
To make a very long story short(er), sometime in 2013 my little online gallery began to draw attention. There were far fewer artists on Instagram at that point, and it was the age of “submissions” to online magazines. I submitted my works often, and although 90% of the time I got no response, there was that 10% of the time that I did—and thanks to those early features, I was able to build up quite a following by 2015. Every day that my account “grew,” I was shocked, in disbelief, and so fucking happy. There are hardly words to describe the feeling, after twenty some odd years, of finally feeling validated and like my work impacted others. It sounds absurd, but it is true: Instagram changed my life. Beyond the opportunities that began to present themselves, I was also able to foster some sense of self-confidence as more and more people connected to my work. I’ll never forget that period of transition and how much it meant to me, and how much it changed me for the better.
And then came the dreaded algorithm. We started hearing about it a while before it was put in place, and everyone was panicking: What would this mean for our following, our engagement, our “likes”? I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t immediately worry about my opportunities being limited. More so, I was absolutely terrified that this thing I had based so much of my self-worth on was going to suddenly sky-rocket me backwards, back to insecurity and not believing in myself. I very much needed the daily dose of self-esteem that was likes and comments on my photos. It got me through the day more than I once could admit. I’m not embarrassed about this, either. It was what it was. Instagram helped me accept myself and decrease my natural tendency to self-loathe. In retrospect, it makes complete sense to me why I was so scared to lose the rock that was Instagram—I didn’t know if I’d really internalized any of that self-worth, or if it was something that needed replenishing each day. I still don’t know, to be honest.
But alas, the algorithm inevitably showed itself. The effects were not immediately apparent. It was annoying that nothing was in chronological order, but that’s about as far as it went for some weeks, possibly even months. But in mid-2017, it hit hard. I remember that I had just reached 40k followers and I was in awe. I was especially in awe that each of those 40k people (or most of them, anyway) followed me at their own volition, because they wanted to see my work, because they liked who I was and what I made and what I said. That number was an accurate reflection of “who I was” to the online community.
But then something strange happened: My following not only ceased to grow, but it actually began to go backwards. I lost followers by the hundreds daily. It wasn’t the typical “clean up” of fake accounts that were abundant on the platform. My photos were seen and liked less, and my audience rapidly decreased. I couldn’t make sense of it and still can’t. But I do know it affected me deeply, and as feared, impacted my view of myself and my work. It was devastating to a girl who had no other outlet— no other option for connecting with the community I’d grown to love and rely on. No one was contacting me to be a part of exhibitions or features in magazines with a large reach. There was no waiting for some big time curator to give me the opportunity for a solo show or a book. I was completely independent, and my (albeit small) opportunities came solely from my use of Instagram.
I can’t emphasize enough how this wrecked my identity and my world. Something had ended, and I was not sure what awaited me on the other side. Would I be someone who almost achieved my success in art on my own, but had the ground ripped out from under me, leaving me as a “has been” Instagram artist? Would I be mocked even more for having a following but no tangible success—only impermanent and seemingly unimportant validation through a phone screen?
Like most of what I’ve said, I still don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I am not alone. So many of us have suffered—artists, burgeoning collectives, journals, agencies and galleries. I’ve watched many businesses, particularly magazines and DIY galleries, shut down due to the lack of exposure that led to the funding necessary to function— all because they could no longer reach their audience, a direct result of the algorithm. Those of us who were beginning to make it on our own have suddenly become invisible. Some of us were so close to changing the status quo— to becoming successful despite our lack of wealth and connections. The world continues to go round for those with such privilege, and their opportunities will never be limited due to lack of reach on Instagram. Are we back where we started, the unseen and unheard bedroom artists?
And so I say, fuck the algorithm. Fuck the algorithm for opening up worlds to those of us who never imagined such worlds, but began to believe in our ability to create them and live within them. Fuck the individuals who did not consider what they were taking from us, but rather prioritized financial growth and big business. I can’t and never will say, “fuck Instagram.” For myself and my peers, again, Instagram gave us hope we didn’t have before. We are just devastated to see it go. We aren’t sure what to do or where to go from here. And we can’t rely on Instagram to go back to how it was, or to ever see the end of the algorithm— and worse, what may come next that will limit us even further.
I have made some of my very best friends through Instagram, and that is one of the reasons I will stay. I won’t give up, not yet. I may be resentful, but I remain grateful at the same time. Maybe I mistook what my online community meant to me. Maybe it was never about opportunity, but about discovering likeminded friends around the world— a community of artists who come from the same place as me. At the end of the day, I appreciate this more than any opportunity at success or dismantling the confines of the art world.
My message is this: Love what we were never promised but given nonetheless. Mourn the loss of that gift, but do not give up. I understand you and I feel you, and although I want to shatter the algorithm that shattered some part of me, nothing could ever take away what my online community of friends and fellow artists that I never anticipated having. We can be angry, sad, grateful and hopeful at same time. We can hold all of those feelings and be ashamed of none of them. I hope we can all find a way to do this, although our paths and our process may be very different.
I’m not going anywhere, and I hope you aren’t either.