It's the dream that most photographers on Instagram are chasing: to strike it big on social media. But how do they do it? How do they become that 23-year-old photographer with three hundred thousand Instagram followers and resides comfortably in a three-room apartment in East Village Manhattan? How do they reach that point where brands and companies will flock toward them with their money, waving in their hands, begging to have him post photos of their products. What are they doing so right and what are we doing so wrong to get to that point? It's a dilemma many young creators are facing when it comes to taking on the goliath of social media and promoting their art. I call it the "Instagram Dream" and its implications for photography and artist growth should not be overlooked.
Like the American Dream, the Instagram Dream feels universal and attainable by anyone, unless perhaps you are one of the 4 billion people in the world who still doesn't have access to the internet. Putting this into perspective, it's a first world problem indeed. Because the Instagram Dream feels reachable by anyone, the photography community on Instagram is vastly diverse in age, ranging from 15-year-old photographers to well-versed veterans in their 60's. My friend, Sam Burns, whom I personally met through Instagram, was featured in the Boston Globe for the work he shared on the app at the age of 18. This highlights the possibilities that can arise from such a platform, but the "dream" doesn't just stop there.
The American Dream is primarily achievement oriented towards a successful life, and if we use the national ethos as a framework for this "Instagram Dream" we find a similar paradox. "Success", as it relates to the American Dream, is quantified by money, and when money is the measurement of success, everyone in competition toward the dream will be competing for eternity because there is no limit to how much money one could have. Photographers on Instagram trying to reach that "dream" find themselves in that same paradox, but with "likes" and "followers" replacing money as the quantifier of success. The kids call it clout.
Defined by CLOUTGANGG in Urban Dictionary, "clout" refers to "being famous and having influence" and is commonly associated with having a large social media following. Clout is essentially the end goal of the Instagram Dream put into one fancy word created by millennials. Interpreting the number of followers and likes one has as a measurement of success online is obviously detrimental to the growth of the photographer or artist if he or she is in a constant race for more numbers. We are all social creatures, and when a platform like Instagram promotes likes and followers as indicators of what's good and what's bad, we are almost always going to be susceptible to some type of social comparison. As defined by Psychology Today, social comparison theory is our tendency to compare ourselves to other people in an attempt to evaluate our self for better or for worse. We deal with this phenomena on an almost day-to-day basis, some worse than others, but especially in the world of social media.
I've dealt with this mindset countless times in my photography journey, especially on Instagram. I'll share a photo on Instagram that I am very proud of, watch the likes slowly trickle in, and then scroll down my Instagram feed only to see another photographer post a photo, yet somehow amass five times the amount of likes I had gotten in half the amount of time. Consequently, I would continue to fall into the trap of thinking that they were better than me and that there was a reason that they were getting more likes than I was. What were they doing so right and what was I doing so wrong? The reality of what I was doing wrong in that moment was that I was giving too much thought to something that would only hold me back from becoming a better artist. I knew I couldn't be the only one intimidated by this, and through time and experience I've learned that this is something many artists deal with on a day to day basis.
What we find in this endless cycle of comparing ourselves in a constant quest for more likes and followers, is that its greatly influencing the way we create and share content online. We will change and adapt to these online platforms, post at certain times of the day, and even change the way we take photos because of this dream. We find ourselves creating for someone else, and no longer for ourselves. We find ourselves forgetting the reason why we picked up a camera in the first place.