Ahh Instagram. There’s a good chance you found this blog through my Instagram profile and if so, hello and welcome! If not, feel free to check out my profile and share your thoughts about this blog post (@carrieoutdoors). I have a lot of feelings about Instagram: some are good, some are bad. I’d like to share some of my thoughts and experiences below, especially as they relate to the changes to Instagram’s algorithm, and then I’d love to hear what you have to say about all of this!
What I Love about Instagram
I really do love Instagram and it has opened up a whole new world for me. Below I will discuss the amazing community I have found through Instagram as well as the unbelievable travel inspiration it has provided.
- The Outdoorsy Community
Instagram has an awesome community of photographers, bloggers, nature lovers, hikers, and like-minded adventurers. I know there are other niches on Instagram (such as accounts based on food, celebrities, and fashion) but I really only spend time in the nature themed sections. Living in cities for the past 12 years (Syracuse, NYC and Boston) didn’t lead me to interact with too many outdoorsy people. However, on Instagram I have been able to connect with so many! It’s been wonderful and inspiring.
I love reading people’s photo captions and thinking “YES! THIS! EXACTLY MY THOUGHTS!” Whether it’s a caption about Leave No Trace and treating the wilderness with respect, adventuring safely, or just some inspiring words about a recent hike, I really enjoy reading what many Instagrammers have to say about exploring the outdoors and enjoying the beauty of nature. I feel like I have found my outdoors people. It’s so awesome.
I have created some personal connections with a handful of unbelievably inspiring accounts both large and small. Between comments and DMs, it’s been so amazing to connect with these awesome people and share adventures virtually! I have met a few of these people in real life and had some great hikes and conversations. I have also attended an Instameet in New Hampshire through The Northeast Collective where I was able to hike and explore in my favorite White Mountains with a group of excellent photographers, with whom I’ve been able to stay in touch!
- Travel Inspiration
The second reason I love Instagram is the travel inspiration. It is so much more personal than browsing random Pinterest boards or “top places to visit” websites and guidebooks. The photos on Instagram feel more real. These are real people posting real photos, often with real captions and stories to go with them. A lot of the time the people who took the photos are also willing to chat and answer questions about the particular location or how they took the photo. And they aren’t just the most popular scenic viewpoints either. I learn about hidden spots, lesser known hot springs, wonderful backcountry trails, and secret views. (Granted, many of these photos smartly don’t come with location tags, meaning I’ll have to do my homework to figure out where they are located – always a fun research project for me!). Here are some examples of how Instagram inspired and revolutionized my travels.
⇒ Norway Honeymoon
On our recent honeymoon to Norway, many of the places we visited were found through Instagram. The trip probably wouldn’t have been as epic without Instagram as a palette from which I found the colors to paint our beautiful honeymoon. For example, Bondhusvatnet and Lovatnet, two lesser known but absolutely stunning lakes in Norway, were spots we found through Instagram that we may not have visited otherwise! See our photos of the two lakes below.
⇒ US Vanlife Road Trip
Our van trip around the United States has also been enhanced greatly by spots we have found on Instagram. I doubt we would have made the drive out to the Alabama Hills or explored around to find the Hot Creek viewpoint, if not for the inspiration we found on Instagram. See our photos of these two amazing spots below.
⇒ Bucket List Additions
I have also fallen in love with new areas that quickly jumped to the top of my bucket list for future travels thanks to Instagram. These places include Patagonia, Argentina (inspired by @michaelmatti), the Cordillera Huayhuash trek in Peru (inspired by @everchanginghorizon), and the Faroe Islands (inspired by @reneeroaming). I honestly had no idea how incredibly beautiful these places were before seeing them on my Instagram feed and now I can’t wait to plan future trips!
The New Algorithm
As many of you probably know, Instagram changed something about its algorithm in the past year or so. It altered the Instagram feed so that posts no longer show in chronological order and makes it so some posts and users are more visible than others. I don’t really understand the details and I certainly don’t understand why they did this, but what I can tell you is that it has had a pretty noticeable negative effect on my Instagram experience for several reasons.
- The weird order of posts
I don’t understand why the posts stopped being chronological! I think the new algorithm favors posts that are doing particularly well, and prioritize those in the feed. I don’t want that! I want to see everything my amazing Instagram friends are posting, in chronological order, not just the most popular stuff. Plus I am bound to see those super popular photos again and again as they are featured by all of the large hubs. It makes me sad that I am missing posts by some really talented friends and photographers, simply because they aren’t showing up in my feed. Sometimes I will click on a friend’s profile and realize that the past 5-10 posts never showed up for me and I missed their beautiful images. What else have I been missing out on!?
This also means my own photos are being seen less often by my followers. If some one is following a 200k follower account and also following me, I wonder whose photo is more likely to be seen in the feed… This has led to a striking decrease in engagement on my posts, which I will discuss below.
- Lower Engagement = Missed Connections
The biggest downside to the changes are that my posts are seen by fewer people and therefore I simply connect with fewer people. Now you might be thinking “Ugh all she cares about is getting likes on Instagram, gross!” But honestly, that’s not it. I miss the connections. I miss new people finding my page, leaving a kind comment, letting me know they were inspired by something I posted, and in turn allowing me to discover their page and be inspired by them. This used to happen all the time, and now, only rarely. I have connected with and met some incredible people through Instagram and it makes me sad that those interactions are happening less frequently.
- Fewer Opportunities
A lower engagement also means less opportunities to collaborate with brands and companies, who used to reach out a lot more often, but now seem to turn to the same top accounts time and time again. Also, I have really picked up my blog writing since the algorithm changed, and it makes me sad that fewer people will find my blog and read what I have to say. I imagine that people who make a living through blogging and social media must be taking a pretty big hit due to these changes. For me, this is just a hobby but I can see how this would be much more devastating if I were relying on my Instagram interactions to make a living.
Proof of the Changes
The numbers don’t lie. Around December, my most awesome Norway adventure photos were getting around 4,000 likes and 100 comments and my less exciting nature posts were getting 2,000 likes and 30 comments. Now, my best photos can barely crack 1,000 likes and maybe 15 comments, despite a pretty big increase in my number of followers. I haven’t really changed anything about the hashtags I use, the comments I write, or the time of day I post. I’ve done a couple of experiments to compare similar photos posted in winter of 2016 versus now, and there is a clear discrepancy. I posted identical photos and the one posted in December 2016 got 2,993 likes and 97 comments while the same post from May 2017 got 2,031 likes and 79 comments. That is quite a huge difference for almost the same picture, especially when considering that I gained almost 10,000 followers between those two photos!
Knowing that approximately 1,000 less people are seeing and interacting with my content each time I post is disheartening. That’s thousands of missed connections! Especially as Steve and I travel around the country, it is a bummer that I’ll have less of a chance of finding awesome people to connect with in each region we visit.
How to Combat the New Algorithm?
I honestly don’t have an answer on how to combat the new algorithm and I do not have any solutions for how to get your photos noticed or how to gain followers. I will outline a few of the things that I do to try and improve my engagement, but honestly none of it seems to be working all that well. I now average 700 likes on a photo, even some pretty incredible scenery, which is around what I was getting on my posts back when I had half as many followers. I know that I’m not an amazing photographer, and I am not saying that I deserve thousands more followers or likes. I am simply comparing my engagement now to how it used to be and there has been a very noticeable change. Anyway, here are some tips that may or may not help.
- Create the best possible content
This is kind of an obvious one, but I have taken more time to be sure that what I post is the best content that I can create. I suppose it has inspired me to find the most scenic views possible, to wake up extra early for the best possible lighting and has pushed me to learn more about photo editing to get better looking images. On the downside, the new algorithm encourages people to only photograph the same epic viewpoints and the same types of scenes that always seem to do well on Instagram. I also see many cookie cutter accounts with the same exact editing styles, as people copy the most popular accounts to try and gain followers. I think creativity both in the shooting and editing of photos has taken a hit. How unfortunate!
- Finding the best hashtags
Hashtags are one way that people can find your photos on Instagram. I try to maximize how many people will be seeing my posts by trying to find the best hashtags to use. Not all hashtags are equal! If a hashtag is too unpopular, then no one will likely see it (for example #goatonamountaintop has only 3 posts) but if a hashtag is too popular, your image will quickly get lost in a sea of thousands of photos (for example #wanderlust has 43 million posts). I try to keep a balance and have a mix of small, medium, and large hashtags.
I still don’t know how many hashtags are allowed. I used to do 60 tags (30 in a comment and 30 more in the caption). However, recently I heard that only 30 hashtags work and the other 30 are invisible so I switched back to 30. I have also heard about certain hashtags being banned or the idea of an account being “shadowbanned” for using broken hashtags without ever being notified. However, I really don’t know anything about these things. If you know more about this, let me know in the comments!
I always try to keep an eye our for weekly hashtag contests and weekend projects such as those on @PassionPassport and @REI as well as @Instagram’s WHP (Weekend Hashtag Project). Not only will I have a shot at winning the contest and be featured by a large account, it also means these specific hashtags are likely to be looked at as new people enter the contest and browse through the entries.
I try to choose hashtags appropriate to each individual photo, including location and regional tags, and I often try to choose hashtags that are associated with real brands or legitimate accounts. I also check that those accounts actually feature random people from Instagram and not just their own ambassadors, photographers, or employees. For example, National Geographic (@natgeo) typically features photos from official National Geographic photographers. On the other hand, Clif Bar (@clifbar) has featured a handful of my photos through the #FeedYourAdventure hashtag, which seems much more worth it! It is still a trial and error process. I’d love to hear any suggestions when it comes to the best hashtags!
- Instagram “Pods”?
I have recently heard of something known as Instagram “Pods” where a group of big accounts has a secret chat room, either through Instagram DM or an outside chat app. Through this chat room, people announce when they post a new photo and then the rest of the people hop on Instagram to immediately like and comment on the new photo. Supposedly this boosts the photo’s ‘engagement rating’ or something like that, allowing the photo to then be seen by more people, getting more likes and comments, boosting its rating even higher, and the cycle continues.
I was invited to one of these “pods” before I knew what they were, and immediately left the chat group. It felt really strange and inauthentic. The idea of being pressured to comment on some one’s photo felt weird and wrong, as well as knowing that some of the comments on my photos were out of obligation rather than genuine compliments. This idea also makes me think of the incredibly talented photographers and Instagrammers out there who aren’t invited to “pods” who will struggle even more to get their photos noticed because the more popular posts are getting inflated by boosting each other up. It’s like a “rich get richer” scheme. I don’t like it!
Should I give up?
I am still thankful to the many people who I’ve connected with and who like, comment, DM, and inspire me every day with their photos and stories. Instagram still has a lot going for it and continues to be a really great community, so I haven’t given up, though I do feel less and less excitement to post and engage on Instagram these days. I hope that Instagram will listen to the backlash and criticism from their users and return to the old algorithm, or a new one that brings back the same spirit of connection that we had last year. I especially want this to happen for new and amazing accounts that got a late start on the game, and may feeling hampered or stagnant in their growth despite having outstanding and high quality content.
If you have a similar (or different!) experience with the new algorithm on Instagram, please let me know in a comment or on Instagram (@carrieoutdoors). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Especially if you have any ideas on how to “beat the algorithm” or tips for people who are new to Instagram!
❤ Carrie Outdoors