O Come Let Us Algorithm

I think we can all agree that there are some hard economic times ahead and being that most of us creatives choose lifestyle over stability, I suspect those struggles will affect artists disproportionately. It may be a hard winter for some of us, so it’s a good thing we are out of the box thinkers.  

When I joined Instagram 11 years ago it was a quirky, wild community of creatives looking for community and connection, sharing our process, and random oddities overlaid with retro filters and frames. It was a digital space that managed to preserve some heart. Over the years Instagram has developed into an advanced web-sphere for merchandise hawking and time wasting—you have to really wade deep to find the vestiges of the heart it once had.

Social media was originally hailed as a grassroots movement of empowerment in self-promotion. The general public finally had the power to share, like, and follow whoever inspired us, which caused a great unraveling of the power structures in many fields—certainly in mainstream arts. Every industry needs gatekeepers. In the pre-social media era, gallerists and curators decided what art was ‘good’ and allowed it to pass into their institution. There is nothing wrong with curated work, but there was plenty of great art out there that was either ahead of its time or just not discovered. Artists who didn’t fit the idea of what was en vogue for the time were left trying to eke out a living in the peripheries of the art world, and social media helped change that and many unique artists found their way to a sustainable art practice. 

Over the years my own creative life has moved away from a dedicated retail space, primarily so I could spend more time making art and less time selling it. Without that downtown retail exposure, Instagram became a lifeline for me to the letterpress community as well as for the promotion of new products and projects. Making sure my work, and my ‘feed’ were of the best quality content was an important part of my life. It kept my followers engaged and interested. I had great conversations and followers became acquaintances and then friends—and then something changed: Instagram started curating peoples’ feeds. A mysterious algorithm rather than the individual user took charge of what we see and by how many people—just the latest example of how money ruins the good things. The social media revolution is over. 

The recent shift to ‘TikToks’ from still images by almost every social media app has further intruded on my working time: now I’m thinking about camera angles and lighting when I should be thinking about my art. I’m not a videographer—I don’t want to be—but if I don’t play by the new ‘rules’ my carefully crafted website and online store sits virtually unused. 

I don’t mind paying to be seen. Like all mediums, the gatekeepers all need their piece of the pie. If I am going to pay, however, I’d like to be in control of the medium and most artists I know don’t have the skills or desire to make videos, and simply can’t afford to pay someone to put together motion content with the regularity needed to keep on top of the algorithm. These online social spaces that used to be supportive communities have been monetized into popularity contests that use an elusive (and hardly guaranteed) future payoff as the dangling carrot. 

The only way to get around the algorithm is for all of us to take an active approach in our feed. Instagram won’t hide a post if we seek it out. Make a note of artists you admire and periodically go to make a comment, tag a friend, or simply click the like icon. Use the search function to find new local artisans and interact with them. If you let the apps passively feed you whatever they want it will be like listening to pop radio: you’ll get a watered-down stream of high-production mush. To be truly engaged in our online world, to find authenticity and heart in our social media, we need to continue to actively push through the bright shiny trinkets to the deeper, richer things below. It’s time consuming, but we are there anyways getting fed a stream of useless ‘watch til the end’ videos, right?

This season, please continue to support your local artist community: dig deep, shop local, shop small, shop handmade, shop authentic, shop sustainable. When you venture online, stay engaged, and stay active. I can tell you from experience those small choices can be the difference maker for a local artisan living in a resort town. Have a happy holiday.