Welcome to 'Beyond the Grid', a new VICE UK column about Instagram.
In early 2016, visual artist and prolific Instagram user Audrey Woollen posted a photo of her iPhone next to a white lily. On the phone screen was a sad-looking selfie. The caption read: "I have decided to take a hiatus from social media ~~ I’ve grown increasingly unsettled and at times deeply hurt by the climate of online feminism and my own position w/in it." She continued, to her 25,000 followers: "I worry my ideas are eclipsed by my identity as an 'Instagram girl' and I watch as ppl whose work I really respect write me off, and ppl whose work I don't respect cite me as inspiration."
Wollen didn't delete her account, but instead let it lie dormant for three years, like a beautiful house, abandoned with all the furniture untouched and intact. Then, in February this year, she wiped most of her old pics and began tentatively posting again – as if it had never happened. I reached out to Wollen – who became known on IG for pioneering "Sad Girl Theory", the idea that female sadness online is a visual act of power and protest – but she declined to respond. Her return to the platform was marked by one casual selfie, alongside the caption: "Will someone teach me what stories are I haven't been on here in three years lol."
Wollen isn't the only person who was popular on Instagram in the early to mid-2010s, before actively moving away from the platform or using it in an entirely different way. Clayton Pettet, now 24 and living in London, tells me that, by 2016, his account @babymorocco was skimming 30,000 followers.
"I was this character where I was, like, a baby boy dreamboat," he remembers over the phone. "People really bought into the idea. It was so heavily edited, like a fantasy." Like a lot of people who do well on Instagram, he's conventionally attractive, and users flocked to his account for his curly brown locks, cherubic sexual poses and strange, fantastical artwork. But two years later, Pettet began to feel bored by what he was posting, as if he was trapped by an online version of himself that was becoming increasingly stale.
"I wanted to focus on my artwork outside – I didn’t just want to be characterised as this one Instagram thing," he says. "I stopped caring about posting pictures, even though it used to be so much fun. So I started thinking, 'Let's just end @babymorocco now, it's time to let it die.'"
Pettet didn't delete the account, but like Wollen he left it alone, and over time it began shedding followers. It now sporadically pops up under the name @mordechaai (at time of publishing it's deleted), but all the old posts have been archived and Pettet only posts occasionally. "As a human you grow and evolve, but a character stays the same. When I cut my hair off, for example, I lost 500 followers. As much as I loved it, there’s something wrong there, like I couldn't evolve," he says.
Other times, things aren't so clear-cut. Alexandra Marzella, also known as @artwerk6666, currently has close to 65,000 followers, though in the past it was "somewhere in the 80,000s". The 29-year-old New York-based artist started using Instagram back in 2010, "before it became fully public", and quickly became known for her confessional posts, low-res selfies and absurd, sometimes confronting, artwork and activism.
Back then, she tells me over the phone, "Instagram was like my studio, and my sketchbook." Alexandra was part of a community of young artists who savvily used Instagram in a similar way, treating the grid like an organic, DIY way to build a community and spread their work and messages.
But Marzella’s relationship to Instagram slowly began to curdle. Her account has now been deleted more than 20 times for "breaking community guidelines" (mainly for nudity) and, over the years, she's experienced a change of heart. She still uses it, but not in the same way, and not as often. "When I want to post anything emotional, or about feelings, I feel like I can't. Instagram is no longer a platform for me to express myself; it's a platform for me to sell myself, but not to actually get down to the nitty gritty things I care about," she says. "Other people are doing that really successfully, but my thing was very 'stream of consciousness', which doesn’t totally work with the platform anymore."
In her words, if Instagram used to be the "sketchbook", it’s now supposed to be the "finalised product" – and that requires a whole new set of skills and energy. "For the most part, the most successful people on Instagram are the ones playing the game and making a successful package for their brand," she explains. "Whereas that's not how I ever used it. In some ways, it's been cool to see this shift, but it passed me by I suppose." She continues: "I liked it when it was a bit more personal, and about actual people, rather than brands or selling constantly. It felt more creative for me. But again, I might just be in a different place."
It's hard to precisely map how Instagram has changed over the past few years, partly because the platform itself is a little shady about it. They rarely release information about how the algorithm works, or the ways in which it constantly shifts. But in June of 2016, we know the timeline moved from appearing in reverse-chronological order to instead prioritising posts they thought you might want to see. Instagram sort of backtracked on this in 2018 by offering a "new posts" function. But as of right now, what appears in your feed is dictated heavily by a complex algorithmic system that marketers and businesses have tried desperately to work out and keep up with.
The amount of active users has also shot up to levels that are hard to wrap your head around. In January of 2013, for example, the platform had around 90 million active users, whereas now it's more than ten times that, with 1 billion. Where IG was once a bunch of former Tumblr users, digital artists and photographers, it's now just… everyone. It's where your aunt posts dinner pics from #datenight. It’s where an endless stream of shiny influencers peddle moisturisers. It’s where all your neighbourhood cafes post photos of their novelty pugs. Plus, the algorithm means you get bombarded with this stuff while missing the posts which might be less popular, but more interesting.
If anyone knows about the evolution of Instagram, it's Arvida Byström. The 27-year-old digital artist, photographer and model currently has around 234,000 followers. Like a lot of prolific early users, she joined the platform in 2012 after migrating from Tumblr. But over the phone, she tells me she thinks a lot of her peers have become not only frustrated with Instagram, but with "the internet in general". In Byström's words, the platform represents the worst parts of the "commercialised world wide web" and plays into "the constant tracking and collection of data, as well as the more personal problem with having a device in our pockets that constantly wants our attention".
As Byström tells it, Instagram used to be a lot more like Tumblr, and attracted the same sort of people, who wanted to share their work and build a sort of online community around it. But something changed. "Tumblr to me was a revolution," she begins. "The people I connected with, what they taught me about art and politics, the projects we did together… this was liberating and exciting. Companies hadn't yet found an efficient way of making money from our online lives, so it was a very different place. Also, smartphones weren't as pervasive as they are today, so the way the internet was used was very different."
Pettet makes a similar sentiment, recalling how, even in the mid-2010s, "Instagram wasn’t so censored. And it felt more DIY and achievable. It wasn’t so algorithm-heavy. I felt like it was more efficient. Whereas now, it feels like you have to invest money and do sponsored posts – things like that."
Unlike many of her former contemporaries, Byström still retains a huge presence on Instagram and beyond. I often scroll through her profile, which is full of shiny, pastel-coloured hues and playful, self-aware visions of femininity and technology. But like Marzella, Byström doesn’t use the platform in the way she used to. It's a public-facing thing, rather than a freeform exploration.
"I have a hard time leaving the platform, because I am scared that institutions and companies – that fund my practise – wouldn't see that number [of followers], which many interpret as [me being] important somehow," she explains.
But there are still some positives: "The people I reach with my art by having it on a major platform like Instagram… it feels both grounding and fun. The art world can become quite navel-gazing, and I feel like reaching a broad audience gives you a little bit of perspective, too."
Finding the language to explain any trend on the internet isn’t easy. It’s such an amorphous, ever-changing, impenetrable entity that even referring to "the internet" in a collective way can feel ironic, or like something straight out of a 2002 Computer Studies GCSE handbook. But Instagram will have been with us for eight years this October, which means – like MySpace and Tumblr before it – only now can we begin to take a step back for a moment and acknowledge how it's changed: the communities to have come and gone and the reasons behind these sometimes seismic, other times subtle, shifts.
The fact that many of Instagram's early users have distanced themselves from the platform recently, or else adjusted their use of it, doesn’t necessarily mean the space itself is solely to blame. As Marzella reminds me, maybe a lot of these users have simply grown up or moved on. She was barely 20 when she first got Instagram, and people’s priorities change.
"We’re all growing up, and realising that – maybe some of us, not all of us – creating work for Instagram isn't sustainable," she says. "It takes up a lot of energy. Especially now, because there are so many other factors going into it. It's not just a post about your day, it’s a lot of other random shit."
"It feels very secondary to me now," she adds, laughing down the phone. "Whereas for a long time it felt like… air. Like I needed it."