The 'Suggested User' Era / by Faizal Westcott

 Image courtesy of Taku Kumabe (www.smaku.com)

Image courtesy of Taku Kumabe (www.smaku.com)

You've been on Instagram for about a year now posting and sharing images consistently from the convenience of your iPhone. You've gained a small cult following of about 3,000 followers and you've built an attractive yet cohesive body of work on your profile. You're doing all the right things in this world of Instagram, but you feel like you're hitting a plateau in terms of engagement and the growth of your audience.

But then @instagram slides into your DMs.

Instagram congratulates you on getting featured on their Suggested Users List, a list of people to follow on Instagram. Your eyes light up with both excitement and confusion thinking, "what exactly did I do?"

Instagram doesn't exactly tell you why you've been featured, but lets you know that you're about to "gain thousands of new followers" And, oh yes, indeed do you gain followers. 

You rest your iPhone on the hardwood table as you stare, eyes dilated, at the notification feed of Instagram's app. All of a sudden hundreds of people are following your account by the minute. You had about 3,000 followers the other day and now you're sitting pretty at about 10,000 followers three days later after your internet glorification. This calls for some type of announcement to your followers and so you post one of your favorite photos letting your audience know that Instagram listed you as a suggested user and that nothing else will change about the content you put out despite your audience increasing by tenfold. 

About two weeks have passed since you became a suggested user, and your spotlight to fame has come to an end. Your time on the list has amassed you 35,000 followers and there is now a big fat 'K' alongside the number 35 on your profile page. Last week, your photos were gaining about 200 likes a post. Now, with your newly acquired stash of social media currency gifted by the gods of Instagram developers sitting behind their desks in California, your photos are reaching upwards of a thousand likes per post. You feel as if you had just won the lottery.

Today in 2018, the Suggested User List no longer exists and was replaced in a 2017 update that changed the list previously under @instagram's profile to suggestions of other accounts ran by Instagram. This was a smart move by Instagram as there wasn't exactly an algorithm for what lent one person instant fame over another. iPhone photographer Taku Kumabe was lucky enough to have experienced becoming a suggested user twice, the second time getting almost 700 new followers every hour. In his blog, Kumabe talks about his experience after getting featured out of the blue. After going from approximately 1,000 followers to 18,000 from his first feature, Kumabe increased his follower count by 830% reaching 153,600 new followers from his second feature alone. 

The Suggested User List catalyzed the prominence of many photographers on the app and scurried thousands of others in hopes that they would become the next lucky photographer. This became problematic for many photographers who used the platform to get their work noticed. Growing your Instagram following organically was already a tedious process, and yet a small handful of photographers were cherry-picked into becoming "stars". Wanting to become featured, many photographers found themselves sharing content that they thought would be deemed "featurable" and would get them the most likes and follows. In my opinion, this resulted in an oversaturation of photography that lacked creativity and substance but was trendy enough for it to be liked by those who weren't necessarily keen on having a photographic sense or eye. People were no longer creating for the sake of their own craft, but rather for the sake of getting featured. 

Now with the Suggested User List no longer existent, photographers with small followings have nothing but their own creativity to stand out from the millions of other users. Unfortunately, though, smaller accounts are now overshadowed by those who were previously lucky enough to get their following kickstarted by Instagram. Brands and companies looking to work with Instagram users look to those bigger following accounts rather than the occasionally more talented, but less clout worthy, photographers. In reality, these brands are just looking at your follower count and not so much your talent. Your follower count ultimately became indicative of whether or not you were talented enough to be hired and given opportunity.

One could say Instagram is no longer a platform for photographers to get their stuff noticed, but I say otherwise. Instagram may be highly saturated with the same photos of the same places, but that only provides more opportunity for us to stand out. You may not get the same amount of impressions as those before you, and you may not get any likes at all, but that's beside the point. Instagram is still an amazing platform that allows people to discover other artists. Create for yourself and find your own style. People nowadays are growing to understand that Instagram is an oversaturated gallery of photos and are willing to look for photographers who stay true to themselves and create for themselves. The beauty of photography is that there will always be an endless amount photographic opportunity. It's just a matter of logging off, walking out the door, and seeing what you can capture.