Arts

Instagram changed, but the artists using it didn't

Are Reels to blame? Changes to the algorithm? These Canadian artists built their careers on the app, but now they're struggling to reach the same audiences they grew there.

What do you do when the platform that built your career suddenly sucks?

Photo of the artist Shanna Van Maurik, standing in her studio. She is a young white woman with rose-gold hair. She wears a neon green toque and a Sonic Youth sweatshirt. She smirks and the camera and crosses her arms in front of her. A colourful painting can be seen hanging on the wall behind her.
Artist Shanna Van Maurik in her Toronto studio. The painter's Instagram account (@nogobed) has approximately 229,000 followers. (@nogobed/Instagram)

Like anyone who's still on Instagram, painter Shanna Van Maurik has rolled with every new feature and product update: stories, IGTV, the disappearance of the chronological feed. Change is always annoying, she says, but with every tweak, she's grown alongside the app, and it's afforded her a career she never imagined back in art school.

Because of Instagram, Van Maurik can make art her full-time job. She's earned a following that's 229K strong — a community stacked with fans, colleagues and collectors — and she estimates 90 per cent of her sales come directly through the app. A self-described "studio hermit," she hasn't had to suffer the traditional hustle of courting galleries, a task she felt too shy to tackle when she graduated from OCAD University in the early 2010s. Instead, she does what she loves best: she makes art and posts pictures — photos of her work and her west-end studio, a sunny refuge that's decorated in the same femme-fantasy style as her paintings.

Shanna Van Maurik. The Voyeur. (Shanna Van Maurik)

"But things have changed since Instagram was in its golden years," says Van Maurik, who's watched her reach and engagement plummet in recent months as IG began implementing changes — new features that have ushered the biggest vibe shift in its history.

The days of only seeing posts from friends — and artists — you follow are over. Reels (short form video that's essentially a TikTok clone) are now fed to users along with an overall boost in "recommended" posts, content from total strangers that's selected by the algorithm. As Trevor Noah summed it up on the July 27 episode of the Daily Show: "Everything is an ad, and your feed is full of people you don't follow." 

"It's a totally different place," says Van Maurik, and if she were starting her career all over again today, she says she wouldn't be signing up for Instagram. Reach on her posts has become so low that she suspects her content is rarely delivered to her followers, a dedicated community that she spent years cultivating.

'Make Instagram Instagram again'

She's not the only one who doesn't recognize her favourite app anymore. User backlash made headlines in recent weeks, peaking when two of the most influential people to ever use the platform entered the chat.

On July 25, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian shared a meme with their 695 million combined followers. Given the mysteries of the algorithm, it's unclear just how many of the app's 1 billion users actually saw the sisters' rallying cry of "Make Instagram Instagram again" — a meme they actually lifted from Tati Bruening, an American photographer who launched a Change.org petition on the subject. (Among the listed demands, organizers want Instagram to consider creators' needs instead of pushing them to "change their entire content direction.") 

Screen capture of typographical memes posted to Instagram stories from the accounts of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. Black text on white background reads: "make Instagram Instagram again. (Stop trying to be tiktok I just want to see cute photos of my friends.) Sincere, everyone."
Unhappy with recent changes to Instagram, sisters Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner shared this meme on their Instagram stories in late July. The graphic was created by U.S. photographer Tati Bruening, who also launched a Change.org petition to "make Instagram Instagram again." As of writing, it has more than 305,000 signatures. (@kimkardashian, @kyliejenner/Instagram)

The day after the Kardashians' blast, Instagram head Adam Mosseri posted a Reel announcing some news. The app would be re-evaluating aspects of its new features, he said. Instagram will remain a place for photos. (Mosseri called them "a part of our heritage.") But in the same message, he declared that "more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time." Also of note: recommendations will stick around — a.k.a. "posts in your feed from accounts that you do not follow." Mosseri confessed the deployment of these algorithm-selected nuggets could use some adjustment, the details of which are TBD.

"We want to do our best by creators, particularly small creators," said Mosseri. But do actual creators buy that line?

For many artists, Canadians included, it's felt like the opposite is true. They've found themselves unable to reach the audiences they've cultivated, and it would seem they're increasingly reliant on getting the algorithm's attention in order to break through the noise. Making Reels could be one strategy to boost attention, and yet there's no guaranteed payoff. Still, are the challenges big enough that artists will ditch the app for good?

Reel frustration

August 10 was Jenn Woodall's biggest Instagram day in weeks, and ironically, the post that boosted her engagement was all about feeling burned out — something that social media's played a hefty part in. A Toronto-based comics artist and illustrator, Woodall has watched her reach flatline this year. Despite an audience of 20,000 followers, in recent months, she's been lucky if 100 accounts actually see what she shares, and as she wrote on Instagram, she's tired of chasing eyeballs. 

I don't make videos. I illustrate, I make comics.- Jenn Woodall, artist

"Social media puts so much pressure on us to make and share and we get punished by being made invisible by the algorithm if we don't check in regularly enough. This is no way to create art," she wrote. "I never draw for myself anymore, it's all based on trying to be visible for work opportunities or doing client work. I know so many people are in the same boat. It's so tiring and frustrating."

As Woodall tells CBC Arts, her interest in Instagram has hit a breaking point.

"Social media is becoming unusable, and not geared toward artists anymore," she says. "It's so disheartening to have to think about what people will like instead of what I want to create." And on that front, the push toward Reels has been an especially troubling development.

"If you want engagement, if you want your followers to see things, you've got to make Reels," she says. "They're pretty much forcing users."

"I don't make videos, "says Woodall. "I illustrate, I make comics. … It's definitely frustrating for me. You have to learn an entirely new skill set to get your work in front of your followers' eyes."

Unlike Woodall, Van Maurik's happy to experiment with video; she was sharing bite-sized clips of her process long before Instagram made Reels a priority, and she's found the transition natural enough. Even so, she says her account's reach is nowhere near what it was years ago, and she empathizes with artists who aren't interested in doing Reels.

"I think about artists whose work doesn't necessarily lend itself to that — like photographers. Instagram was first and foremost a photography app." Says Van Maurik: "It's annoying that we're being pigeonholed into doing one thing to even just reach our audience."

'I'd rather make my own artwork'

Montreal photographer Laurence Philomène has avoided making Reels to this point, and has no plans to make them either. For as long as they've been on Instagram, they've seen the platform as a way to showcase their artwork. "The format of it [Reels] doesn't appeal to me that much from an artistic standpoint," says Philomène. "Like, I'd rather make my own artwork."

Madeleine Gross is another artist who hesitates at the thought of making Reels. Like Philomène, she sees her Instagram output as a creative pursuit, and doing Reels solely for the sake of self-promotion isn't exactly a compelling prospect.

"I don't want to do it just for engagement," says Gross, a Toronto-raised artist whose hand-painted travel photos are the epitome of #wanderlust. "You've got to do it because you want to create something."

Meanwhile, her engagement continues to falter — a development that would damage any working artist's bottom line. Most of her sales come from Instagram, she says, and it's also provided her with professional opportunities over the years, including client commissions and brand partnerships.

"It is a great way to connect with collectors and other artists," says Gross, "and I've made so many art sales because of it. But I don't want to be so reliant on something that is kind of fleeting."

Madeleine Gross. Honeymooners. (Courtesy of the artist)

Being dependent on the app has always posed certain risks. Censorship has been a long-standing issue for many artists. Van Maurik, for her part, has had her account temporarily frozen in the past. She says the app flagged one of her posts, suggesting she was dealing drugs. The offending image? An illustration of mushrooms.

"That has a real financial effect on artists," she says. "If you take away someone's account, that's their livelihood."

If you take away someone's account, that's their livelihood.- Shanna Van Maurik, artist

As easily as Instagram can build your career, it can take it away. In Evan Doherty's case, his meme account (Arcane Bullshit) became so popular in recent years that he was able to leave his ad-agency job to pursue posting spooky absurdities full time.

Arcane Bullshit boasts 112K followers, and Doherty sells prints and T-shirts and other merch based on the memes that rate best with his audience. It's enough to support himself, and so far, he hasn't seen his reach drop dramatically, but as he says: "I'm sure it's coming for me."

"To have your entire business hinged on just one social media platform where everything is changing all the time is kind of terrifying," he says. "So you see a lot of creators, myself included, trying to find a Plan B."

Pivot to Plan B?

To that end, Doherty's focused on building his newsletter, and he actually has a side gig producing a mail-out for another comedy account, Obvious Plant. (The artists connected via Instagram, in fact.) 

Van Maurik's marketing herself through her mailing list too, and she's able to generate income through Patreon subscriptions as well. She's even on TikTok — though at 33, she says she feels a little too old for it. 

Philomène also does Patreon and produces a monthly newsletter, but ultimately, Instagram continues to drive their sales. Whatever they're promoting — and regardless of whether they're selling it independently or through a gallery — Philomène will share the news on Instagram. "If I share it, I'll get sales. If I don't share, I don't get sales. It's very direct like that."

If that's the case for everyone, it might feel impossible to quit. "At this point, I don't think I can leave," says Woodall. The illustrator has a new book arriving in the fall through Oni Press, a sci-fi adventure called Space Trash. Instagram is where she's built her biggest following, so that's where she'll keep promoting the project until it's out. Despite her many frustrations with the app, it remains the most effective platform for her ends. 

Philomène doesn't expect to leave Instagram either, at least not anytime soon, but they remain philosophical about the future. Since their teen years, they've joined photo communities online, changing with the times and their needs as an artist. First there was Flickr, then Tumblr and now Instagram. 

"I've been on different apps and different websites that were popular at the time, and I'm sure Instagram won't be here my entire lifetime," they say. "I'm very curious to see whatever comes next."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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