In recent years, artist managements, agents, and journalists increasingly perceived social media, precisely Instagram, as a digital portfolio. Indeed, social media are well suited to the fashion industry: the attractiveness of the visual and the community characteristic are essential to both. Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, 53% of the world’s population uses social media today, as announced by the Digital 2020 October Global Statshot Report, with the industry expecting a 20% increase in annual digital growth in 2021 compared to last year. With these societal shifts, Instagram has turned into the primary tool for creatives to self-promote and network. Against this background, it appears reasonable for managements to demand their artists to promote their work and themselves on digital platforms.
“Every time we would post something, we would make a direct sale, which made [Instagram] serious super fast.” – Marieyat Yeung, Founder of MARIEYAT
Charlotte Roberts, a London-based stylist, started using her Instagram as a professional platform when she got signed at an agency in 2019. She witnessed first-hand the shift from using it as a personal social networking tool to a self-promotion platform. She shares her feelings on that transition: “It was difficult to know where to place yourself. I had never been particularly interested in self-promotion in that way,” she says. “It turned us all into mini social media managers.”
With the rising importance of Instagram, curating a profile and focusing on increasing the following through regular activity could easily distract from the actual creative work. Maria Yeung, the designer behind the underwear label MARIEYAT, too felt like promoting her designs via Instagram quickly became a second job. “At the beginning, I just saw it as a platform that gave us an alternative way to promote the brand and get in touch with stylists and photographers,” she shares. “But every time we would post something, we would make a direct sale, which made it serious super fast.”
“As soon as I became a photographer, the pressure was there to use social media and to use it to the fullest potential. Otherwise, you are supposedly standing in the way of your own career.” – Daisy Walker
Indeed, the shift towards digital created the opportunity to market oneself, but more so the pressure to become a personal brand. “It wasn’t an active decision,” explains photographer and filmmaker Daisy Walker, talking about her start in the industry. “As soon as I became a photographer, the pressure was there to use social media and to use it to the fullest potential. Otherwise, you are supposedly standing in the way of your own career.” Naturally, when an online presence becomes essential to one’s practice, it, too, affects the professional profile itself. Generally, commercial work has always been crucial in the creative industry to receive recognition and sustain financial stability. With digital portfolios, a high following leads to a job or getting signed with an agency. The only difference is that the judges don’t solely evaluate one’s work but the social media profile’s success.
“I feel like Instagram has ballooned into this platform to peacock and show-off what you are doing. It makes you feel very inadequate a lot of the time.” – Charlotte Roberts
Before, the industry used platforms like models.com to research interesting creatives and work. As Instagram took over as the new industry research tool, it withdrew individuals’ choice to prioritise their mental well-being. Because humans possess a fundamental drive to compare themselves with others, the constant exposure to high activity social networks can result in poorer self-evaluations and lower self-esteem. Roberts gets candid about her feelings towards most recent developments: “I feel like Instagram has ballooned into this platform to peacock and show-off what you are doing. It makes you feel very inadequate a lot of the time.” Hence, Instagram becomes a constant comparison feed. “As a freelancer, sometimes you have a week where the calendar is not as busy as usual. Then with that free time and endless scroll, you feel bad seeing what everyone else is doing. It is very toxic,” admits Roberts.
There are always two sides to a coin. Due to being a valuable marketing tool, social media has undoubtedly helped to democratise fashion to a point where the traditional education system’s necessity is under question as everyone has the opportunity to start a career as a creative from scratch. “Instagram opened a lot of doors,” says Yeung. “I consciously didn’t want to go through the traditional way of setting up a label, and thanks to social media, I didn’t have to.” Digitalisation grants creatives authority over their communication that traditionally lay in the hands of press agencies. “For individual creators, social media implies complete control over their promotional activities. Relinquishing to use this opportunity in such a competitive space really minimises one’s impact and likelihood to get jobs and an income,” adds Walker.
Because the algorithm moved away from the chronological feed, an account’s following depends on whether content receives the most engagement.
Naturally, one would anticipate an account with a high following to reflect the respective individual’s success and talent. However, and despite the fact the above correlations still dominate users’ minds, since Instagram introduced the new algorithm first in 2016, its updates have caused these associations to trotter. Because the algorithm moved away from the chronological feed, an account’s following depends on whether content receives the most engagement. This, in return, depends on criteria ranging from how often the user opens the app to the content’s colours and filters. Overall, the number of followers or the engagement on posts have become the least representative of a user’s likeness.
“A friend of mine once told me a great analogy,” shares Walker on the digital evaluation system. “The most popular restaurant in the world is McDonalds. But that doesn’t mean it’s great quality. You can have a million likes, and it doesn’t mean that your work is good.” Still, social media dictates talent. Hypes and trends prove how quickly content can blow up, solely based on the right place and time. This is not to say respective individuals or brands don’t deserve the credit. It is to say that the line between quality and quantity is incredibly fine.
“I might want to post my favourite image from a shoot, but it is in black and white, which famously doesn’t do well on Instagram. It would get 100 likes, which is not deemed successful or good and, in return, feeds back into my validation, self and identity.” – Charlotte Roberts
But not only the industry perceives digital key performance indicators as reflective of talent. Artists often interpret the engagement on a post as reflective of how well-perceived their body of work is by the audience. As much as creatives participate in the system, they also consume it. Charlotte Roberts confesses, “I might want to post my favourite image from a shoot, but it is in black and white, which famously doesn’t do well on Instagram. It would get 100 likes, which is not deemed successful or good and, in return, feeds back into my validation, self and identity.” Thus, a tool designed to imply a feeling of control over one’s creative output evolved into just another factor adding insecurity in a highly competitive environment.
As if the psychological pressures were not enough, social media are not the safest platform for copyrighted creations. “We had quite a good following, and lots of customers knew us from Instagram,” tells Yeung, “when we got hacked last December. It affected me mentally a lot, as well as the business.” Suddenly, the assumed agency leaves individuals powerless. When brand communication concentrates primarily on digital devices, its absence can affect an entire brand funnel and, consequently, the future of a business.
“I have taken inspiration from older generations: taking a step back, not constantly posting, and when you have something relevant that you are proud of, put it up.” – Daisy Walker
Charlotte Roberts, Daisy Walker, and Maria Yeung altogether had at some point not only considered going offline but taken breaks from social media. “At one point, I was creating to get likes, which is really unhealthy. I felt like I was chasing a falsified idea of myself and success,” admits Walker. Roberts deleted her Instagram several times, but unfortunately, it is too essential for her work as a stylist to stay offline. “Now,” she says, “I set a limit of one hour every day on the app. It is so unhealthy if you end up in an endless scroll in the morning and you haven’t even started your day yet!” The designer Yeung found the same approach as healthiest for her mental health.
In 2021, it is not an option for young creatives to go offline. “We are designers; we studied to do this job. Ultimately, we are not content creators. It’s just a byproduct, but it has become something we are supposed to be doing,” criticises Yeung. Time can not be reversed; the world is moving forward, which leaves individuals with finding a healthy habit with the new order for themselves. Walker explains, “I have taken inspiration from older generations: taking a step back, not constantly posting, and when you have something relevant that you are proud of, put it up. Use social media for what it is best at, which is a political tool to put forward important values. Don’t feed the beast!” Asked about her ideal future relationship with social media, Charlotte Roberts puts many creatives’ feelings in a nutshell: “I would like to be able to delete it. Maybe I would feel left out, but it would be much better for my mental health. I could deal with the FOMO!”