If video killed the radio star is the algorithm killing social media?

In the olden days, nigh on twelve years ago, I launched a boutique textile lineonline which was essentially an overnight success. In truth, I’d taken roughly two years to research, develop and launch my product, but it really only took that initial submission of photos to the leading design blog at the time to launch my product globally: immediate traffic to my online store, print magazine placement and countless wholesale inquiries. Quite honestly, the success exceeded all of my expectations.

That was 2006, the days when the Internet was still Wild West. This was a time before algorithms had reached their peak, when print media was king and bloggers were just a bunch of kids recently graduated from Live Journal. A time when online content needed not be original, only on trend. A time when blogging was not a career and certainly not on the radar of leading brands. Most of all, this was a time when, if you were simply smart enough — and had a unique product that resonated with consumers — word of mouth via the Blogosphere could propel your product forward. It was a new frontier, a period when a girl or guy, or a mom and pop without financial resources could place a stake, could compete, and could have a good chance of making it.

“…bloggers were just a bunch of kids recently
graduated from Live Journal.”

By 2011 when I launched my second business, the Internet and the Blogosphere had changed. Large corporations — the establishment — had moved in, waving bags of money and imposing their rule of law. A pay for play ethos had settled in. In short, by 2011 cash was king on blogs and pretty much everywhere else online. Google had changed its algorithms and created paid placement, and most bloggers began to request placement fees. Cash on the barrelhead became the rule. Much as corporate interests have all but killed independent cinema in this country, so too gone were the days of the more untamed and free Internet. In 2011 as a lone gun, I could no longer compete with the big box stores armed only with grit and fresh ideas.

But, this is the way of evolution: survival of the fittest. And as we have all discovered by now the most expedited microcosm of evolution is currently taking place on social media. There are always new frontiers, and these days I will offer that the newest frontier for tastemakers has been on Instagram.

Wild West 2.0: Enter the influencers

Last week a couple of the style bloggers whom I follow posted about their humble beginnings via Instagram Stories, and it got me thinking about the democratization of celebrity we are witnessing. No, this is not a Kim Kardashian thing about being famous for being famous. This is a unique time when individuals with enough talent and smarts can rise above the rest to become an influencer, a celebrity of taste. These young women I follow are very talented, savvy and smart. I can imagine that 20 years ago their talents could have easily been squashed by the weight of a behemoth fashion industry, while they labored for years working under a label in lesser roles. Essentially these talents are now disrupting the hierarchy of the fashion industry in a period which I would call Wild West 2.0.

“This is not just a cult of personality, it is a cult of lifestyle.”

And this is a completely new kind of celebrity, the Influencer. This is a cult of personality but it’s based on an individual image, esthetics and taste, rather than that of a brand. This is not just a cult of personality, it is a cult of lifestyle. Different than the rise of traditional celebrities in our society, these influencers rise to to the top propelled by their ability to connect directly with their audience, as opposed to being propelled by larger institutions such as Hollywood studios or sports franchises. Their audiences find it so attractive to follow influencers because they are made to feel that this lifestyle — the life of these self made individuals — is just within our reach as well.

With this new clout, influencers have started turning hearty profits from their personal brands with leading BtoCs rallying for paid placement, sponsorship and more. I certainly don’t take issue with talented and driven people making money — I absolutely support it. The issue I have is not with the influencers but with Instagram, the social media platform which hosts them.

influencers

I fear that this period of the free reign of ideas and fresh talent may be coming to a close. Instagram, acquired by Facebook in 2012, has more recently adopted algorithms and ads that may mean the beginning of the end. Instagram users have widely questioned the implementation of algorithms and what if any value is added to the user experience. The general presumption by users is that those accounts with the deepest pockets are now being favored. And what those of us in creative fields, influencers and tastemakers, feel is that Instagram by monetizing via algorithms is now creating yet another pay for play institution that will once again make it hard for the freshest ideas to rise to the top. Essentially that Instagram will become like traditional media with advertisers and large organizations being the dominant voice.

“Essentially that Instagram will become like traditional media with advertisers and large organizations being the dominant voice.”

Instagram is still a free service for users, and to cite the 2012 adage, “If the product you are using is free, YOU are the product.” Certainly it is Instagram’s imperative to profit from their service, but there is always the question of balance. When scales tip too far towards the sponsors, the users may decide to move elsewhere.

Perhaps with this latest evolution, Instagram is failing to recognize that these fresh and unknown talents who are discovered via users are exactly why users keep coming back. Users crave true connection, inspiration and that is born from what is spontaneous and messy. It’s that mythical move, Westward-ho into new territories, a destination without too many rules, roads or algorithms. If algorithms created the political echo chambers on Facebook that helped elect president Trump, will the Instagram algorithms create a social media environment which is bland, corporate and soulless?

And perhaps, the larger questions— Is the corporatization of Instagram and other social media inevitable? And will all social media ultimately become the type of institution it sought to disrupt?

Originally posted on Linkedin and Medium.com Jan. 8, 2018
Image credits, center: Steffy Degreff & Noelle Downing
Content: ©2018 Maja Brugos

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