This morning @simply.sophie.marie made an insightful and impassioned post about the disparity in attention within trans communities on instagram vs Facebook, and how on IG it is such a popularity contest. I suggest everyone hit her timeline and take a read.
She’s completely right, Instagram is a popularity contest, and just like popularity contests in high school, the ones on top are always the prettiest. This is not at all exclusive to the trans community, this is true across the entire platform. If you are thin, young, white or white passing, and conventionally attractive, you have a significantly larger platform than everyone else. Even in plus size spaces, the women who get the most attention are on the lower end of the plus size range and have a more favorable hourglass shape.
But the thing is, this isn’t just a sociological factor. It’s deliberately engineered into the platform user experience. Every post must have an image, and that image always comes before the text content. The text content is always abbreviated to one or two lines. This means that before anyone will read your words you must first capture their eyes. To borrow a term from radio, your photo is your hook.
Compare this to Facebook, where the text always comes before the images. The image aspect ratio is unlimited, and the appearance of the post changes depending on those aspect ratios, so you can use your photo content to manipulate the look of the post. Facebook also shows more of the text content, truncating to four or five lines by default. Facebook posts don’t even have to have images to be captivating, and indeed FB has a post type that is just words displayed in image format. All of this makes Facebook a more attractive platform for thoughts and ideas than Instagram is. This is undoubtedly why it is so influential in politics today.
Because of Instagram’s focus on visuals, the platform suffers a bias towards the more “favorable” looks. A more aesthetically pleasing post gains more attention and more engagement. The higher engagement encourages the content higher in people’s feeds, but at the cost of everyone else. It literally is a popularity contest, because we are all fighting for a chunk of the user’s scroll space.
The more people that user follows, the more competition we have. If enough of those other people they follow are more popular than you are, you fall off their scroll entirely. I’ve had people time and again tell me that IG stopped putting my posts on their timeline entirely. Their algorithm decided that it was unlikely they would ever scroll enough to see my content, so it didn’t add it to their feed at all. Computationally this is a smart move, as it reduces overhead internally, but it sucks for users.
Facebook is guilty of this as well (as is twitter); your feed is algorithmically generated in exactly the same way IG’s is, based on engagement. The difference is, most of us have a few hundred FB friends at the most. We may be in groups and follow pages that add to our feed, but in general the completion is a lot lower. FB is also bisected by content source, with groups separate from friends, so content is easier to reach (oh how it would be nice if IG had user lists like FB and Twitter). FB also lets you mark users and pages as high priority, so that they always show up at the top of your feed. FB also assigns different weights to the different post reactions (
wow are positive,
angry are negative,
like is neutral).
Instagram is a shitty place to build a community. It’s not designed for it. It is designed for showing off shiny things, and if you aren’t shiny, you are punished. So why are we all here? Why do so many communities build in this space, when it fights against us?
In a word: safety. IG is mobile first, which creates a higher barrier of entry for spreading hate. Yes, we still get hate, but it’s not mechanized and mainstreamed like it is on Twitter and Facebook. Nobody is hitting Instagram to spread misinformation and propaganda to a broad audience because it’s too hard. You can’t post from a computer, and the APIs Instagram provides are severely limited, so you have to use their client on an actual mobile phone (there are ways around this, but they’re a huge pain in the ass).
Once the content is on the platform, getting it out there is extremely limited. The only platform supported way to share each others content is to share it in stories, which have significantly less engagement than posts and have a limited shelf life. That means hate doesn’t spread through easy pathways like it does on platforms with reshare buttons. A user has to go to extra effort to reshare content, and most people just don’t care enough to do that.
IG also makes linking off platform extremely difficult. You have four ways to share a link. Your profile bio website field, via DMs, via story swipe up (after you hit 10k followers), or by paying for a sponsored post. That means that you can’t just get someone to click a link to feed them hatre, you have to make it fit into the box of the IG post. That also means it’s easier for hate to be detected and removed from the platform.
Finally, Instagram gives us a TON of control over who is allowed to interact with our posts. Personally, I have comments set to followers only, and it saves me a TON of drive-by vitriol. You can also limit responses on stories, block certain words, and and in general get a lot of protection from harassment in DMs (functions desperately needed, given the way so many cis men use this site).
Does this mean IG is free of harassment and abuse? Oh lord know, we all know someone whose account got report brigaded into suspension. We’ve all had hateful comments left on our posts, and awful things said in our DMs. But it’s still better than other places.
So, we remain, because even when it fights against our interests, it also spares us from a lot of negativity.
What can be done about this? Get the popular people to raise the voices of those with less status than them. If you are over 10k followers (you know who you are, don’t make me do callouts) you have a moral obligation to be sharing your stage with the more disenfranchised members of the community. And I mean more than just shoutouts in your stories, you should be handing over the mic. Do account takeovers, reshare posts from other people, talk about their posts in your captions, brings guests into your live streams. Be proactive in encouraging your followers to look at other people content.
Take an effort to follow more people of color, more disabled people, more fat people, more non-passing or gender non-conforming trans people. Engage with their posts! Not just double tap liking, leave comments and smack that share button. Make sure IG knows you care about that person’s content.
Now, to address a specific complaint that Sophie brought up about Paula Nolan’s Real Me challenge.
I feel Sophie was unfair in her criticism of this, and not just because I took part in it. Paula didn’t even expect that challenge to take off, she said in my comments that she thought maybe she’d get two people. What did take off wasn’t what she described, either. Her goal was to encourage people to post their everyday looks, a plain selfie taken on the spot without any of the prep and post-processing that so many IG content creators (including myself) put into their images. She never even said that we shouldn’t wear makeup, just that she wanted it to be an everyday look.
The community, however, took that much further, and the majority of posts that I saw were people “in the raw”, fresh out of bed or their morning shower, not even dressed for the day yet. It turned into a focus on showing ourselves as our loved ones see us, as our pets see us, as we see ourselves in the mirror every morning. It became an effort to normalize trans faces without all the work we put in to being public presentable and Instagram Ready™.
Personally I found that to be a very heartwarming endeavor, and I don’t think it was fair to criticize Paula or the community for that.