Exploring both sides of Instagram fame

At first, Mike Lindle thought Instagram was pointless. Sixteen months, 10,213 followers and 573 posts later, he has Instagram to thank for his newfound interest in amateur photography.

Lindle is what one may call “Instafamous” — a self-made micro-celebrity grouped among the ranks of butt-selfie queen Jen Selter and Mayhem, a four-year-old who models red carpet-inspired paper dresses. Unlike the Kim Kardashians of Instagram, he avoids posting foodporn, selfies or drinking pictures because that’s all he saw the app being used for.

Lindle is a fourth-year economics student from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His Instagram account description, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”, accurately describes his posts, which mainly consist of landscapes and scenery photographs he takes while travelling.

He describes his Instagram account as a personal photoblog used to document what he does every day.

“Yes, it is a photo journal about the stuff that I do but it’s not about me. It’s about what I’m seeing — inherently about where I am and not who I am,” Lindle said. A quick scroll through his feed, which reveals pictures of well-known landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial and Sydney Opera house, confirms this claim.

Contrary to what the name may suggest, Instafame doesn’t happen instantaneously. In fact, Lindle has the American political drama, House of Cards, to thank for boosting his popularity. He began by taking pictures around Washington in February 2013.

“When I started seeing an increase in followers, it was when House of Cards started getting really big. I would hashtag Washington, D.C. … and get a couple followers here and there,” he said. “I just kept rolling with it and posting D.C. photos.” Besides using Instagram to document his experiences, he appreciates the app for its promotional purpose.

“I like … having 20,000 eyes, 10,000 people. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do with it,” he said. “I definitely like the ability that is has for the future.”

Despite his online success, Lindle is not a fan of the label “Instafamous.” “It’s kind of embarrassing. I kind of wish when I originally set up my account that I made it separate from who I am because the goal is not to market who I am but what I see,” he said.

Brittney Yang, another popular Instagram user, expressed similar sentiments as Lindle. She hates being referred to as Instafamous, mostly by friends who tease her about the title, she said.

With a following of over 5,000, Yang, ArtSci ’16, owes her popularity to the women’s fashion boutique Aritzia. One of Yang’s photos — tagged #myaritzia when the hashtag was trending — was reposted by the brand’s Instagram account, which boosted her popularity.

On one hand, Instagram connects Yang to countless people — both friends and strangers alike. On the flip side, though, she doesn’t see Instafame as anything special.

“In the real world, it doesn’t really account for anything valuable,” she said. “I definitely don’t perceive myself any differently because I have such a large amount of followers.” For Jamie Ko, the app serves primarily as a personal stress-reliever.

“I started just posting food because I’m so busy during the school year and food is something that is constantly around me, so it’s easy for me to take a quick picture and post it,” Ko, ArtSci ’16, said.

“The main reason that I started using Instagram was to eat healthy food and to follow people who eat healthy.” Her account, which is rapidly accumulating new followers, just hit the 1,000 mark last month.

With a wide array of visually-appealing foods from colourful smoothies with creatively sprinkled toppings to fruit and peanut butter topped rice cakes resembling flowers, her photographs merge the beauty of art and culinary creation into one.

There is a common theme among Lindle, Yang and Ko’s reasons for posting pictures — they do it for themselves, not to accumulate likes or followers. For them, Instagram acts as a tool for creative expression, not as a narcissistic measurement of self-worth that most Instafamous users are accused of having.

Instagram fame may encourage narcissistic behaviours in the spirit of online social competition though, according to Dr. Kane X Faucher, assistant professor at Western’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies (FIMS). He believes Instafame for some involves little effort beyond the exploitation of the app’s algorithms.

“The nature of increased fragmentation and alienation ... speaks to an existential crisis [where] we stage or showcase ourselves online as readily consumable digital objects rather than as dynamic and complex human subjects,” Faucher told the Journal via email.

“[Instafame] is yet another form of conspicuous, status-chasing behaviour already prefigured in the works of Veblen.”

Like Faucher, Michael Friesen, FIMS associate professor, sees problems with Instagram fame.

“Social media audiences are notoriously fickle: establishing lasting fame over a period of years is going to be incredibly difficult,” Friesen told the Journal via email. “It’s not that Instagram fame is good or bad, but rather that it’s guaranteed to be transient, and unless it’s handled well, it will also be pointless in the larger arc of the user’s life.”

He compares Instagrammers to buskers playing music on a street corner.

The difference between the two is that the barriers to entry for both ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ have been eliminated.

“As a result, we can feel a sense of accomplishment from posting something and an ego boost when somebody ‘likes’ it, conveniently forgetting that neither requires much effort,” Friesen said. He added that social media sites like Instagram offer an illusion that we are reaching thousands of people.

“Fame acts like a drug because it makes us feel good … The more we have, the more we want — and a decline in fame is genuinely traumatic for those that get hooked.”

Despite the common negative connotation associated with “Instafame”, Neil Bearse, associate director of marketing at Queen’s School of Business, claims the title should be seen in a positive light.

He shares a common viewpoint with Lindle regarding the app’s marketing uses. Brands can learn a lot from what the culture is like on any given social network.

“If an individual has a large number of people who are following them or paying attention to what they’re talking about and if that demographic is relevant to a brand, then those people become pretty powerful influencers,” he said. “There’s a lot to be learned from people who’ve figured [Instagram] out in terms of emulating what they do, respecting the culture and using the language to engage people in that area.”

Chasing big numbers isn’t what brands should be aiming for, just as wannabe Instafamers shouldn’t focus on gaining followers by using popular hashtags to accumulate likes.

Instead, Bearse said high-quality users who put value into a business model should be sought after.

“If they’re not engaging with your content, sharing your content, commenting on your content, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Brands don’t measure the number of followers you have, they’re trying to find an impact on sales [and] impact on revenue.”

Will Instagram’s popularity last? Bearse thinks so. The huge insight that allowed them to stand out from websites such as Flickr and Picasa was quick mobile photo sharing.

“The fact that they forced Facebook into acquiring them really solidifies their future,” he said. “They were a company that by design was built for the future of photography.”

Whether used by individuals sharing their travels or companies engaging with consumers, as long as mobile photo sharing continues to exist, Instafame won’t be going away anytime soon.

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