Instagram is not a community. It is an audience.
We must contend with the relational limitations of corporate advertising media, and recognize how its architecture rewards anti-social behavior like the accountability spectacle.
I recently made a post on Instagram with the same title of this essay. I’ve decided to expand on this idea here. It absolutely critical that we take notice of the water we are swimming in when it comes to social media, given how much these platforms mediate the most intimate part of our human lives: our relationships.
An Instagram page, by virtue of the architecture of its platform, cannot be a community. This has nothing to do with how someone uses their account, but is a conclusion drawn from recognizing the relational limitations of the platform—meaning the constraints on relationship-building potential imposed by the social media platform’s architecture. There are many account-holders, especially those in the self-help sphere, who call their Instagram followings a “community,” and sincerely believe it. I challenge them to reconsider the accuracy of that label and the possible impacts of such a misnomer.
Some people will say that community cannot exist online at all, perhaps that online relationships are necessarily alienated and disembodied such that true community cannot be formed. Yet, my definition of community absolutely extends to the virtual world and I believe online ties can be as impactful as IRL ones.
It is 2021 after all, and after a year of sheltering in place due to a pandemic, it has become glaringly obvious that our digital world is a location for maintaining and ideally, building community relationships. If the platforms we use cannot foster true community, no matter how well-intentioned or how much individual energy we expend, our community-building efforts will fail. In my view, contending with this will be a necessity over the next decade. Doing so is both more difficult and more pressing in contexts where we are already alienated and isolated, where we often struggle to sustain healthy community ties. It is my sincere hope that we collectively, rather than corporate CEOs, find a solution to this issue.
I define a community, in an ideal sense, as a group of people who are bound together through active, overlapping relationships. These relationships generally cultivate security and belonging. Each person has a purpose in the group that allows them to make a valuable contribution, and contributing to the group strengthens ties. Community may also include a consensual sharing of resources. Community is not the same as a network or an audience. I do not consider a community to be a group of people who coalesce around a personality; that is perhaps a fandom or at worst a cult.
I frequently reflect on the internet in the 2000s. I say that the internet raised me, and I mean it. It was my playground, my library, my safety from chaos. In 2005 online, I met a person who came to represent a big brother figure to me who still, 15 years later, wishes me a happy birthday every year without fail. The connections I made online were formative, to say the least.
As I’ve been building relationships online in recent years I’ve realized that my familiarity with the social media world of the 2000s is not something everyone in this era of virtual reality has. This difference in experience should be intuitive to me yet it consistently surprises me. I believe it offers me useful insight into the limitations of what we now call “social media”—which I prefer to call corporate advertising media, as its main purpose is to generate ad revenue, not to support its users in developing pro-social connections.
I’ve observed major changes in the world of social media over the last 15 years, and I believe that a “community” mediated through an Instagram account with a large audience is not possible, though cultivating a fan club might be.
A stark contrast exists between Instagram (others too, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece) and message boards of the early 2000s. Comparing these platforms through time has led me to understand that 1) the internet can absolutely be used to create virtual communities and 2) social media in its present form cannot successfully do so.
Message boards were built by and for people with the intention of relating to one another. That was the intention and the function of these platforms. The communication was decentralized by virtue of the fact that everyone on message boards had equal opportunity to engage, both as an OP (original poster) and responder. No one account-holder was the mediator of conversation. Discussion was categorized by topic rather than personality. There was an admin and moderators who maintained the space, like a host maintaining their home that friends are meeting in. There were no like reacts or upvotes (eventually message boards developed that capability but I’m talking even before that). There was no algorithm; all participation was simply ordered chronologically.
Naturally people formed cliques and alliances, and certain individuals emerged as leaders, often tied to their role as admin or mod. Sometimes “post counts” or “date joined” became a type of social capital; n00bs generally weren’t as well-regarded as a person who joined the site 3 days after it launched. But no one was striving to increase their follower count, friend count, or achieve virality. Those things were either irrelevant or impossible within the confines of the platform.
Given that, the impulse to compete over social capital (likes, follows, an audience for one to be heard or sell products to) was not rewarded by the message board platform. The cool currency of post count, for example, was infinite and completely within one’s control to obtain: Simply post more. And in that case, the social capital is directly tied to one’s contribution to the community, which is entirely within one’s control. On Instagram, on the other hand, the social currency is actually people: their follows, attention, and engagement. Accruing capital, then, is dependent on other people’s choices, rather than one’s own. It hinges on one hitting an algorithmic jackpot, purchasing ads, and/or networking with the right people who can expand one’s reach to a larger audience. If this platform was only used as a consumerist marketplace, this would “make sense” insofar as such a dynamic is considered normal in the context of business. Yet, Instagram is being used by people with large audiences to build what they call a community.
On Instagram, the communication between account-holder and follower is necessarily imbalanced and the vast majority of relationships parasocial. Even if someone followed their followers back, the algorithmic newsfeed does not show all of your followers’ posts, so the individual relationships cannot possibly be two-way with all “community” members. The site of interaction for a “community” on Instagram is the comments section of the lead account-holder's posts. This in itself creates major limitations on connecting. The opportunity to contribute to a “community” conversation centers around the interests of the lead account-holder rather than the diverse perspectives, impulses, and interests of the many individuals who follow them. Then, the communication between commenters who engage with a large page are limited by word count and are necessarily subsumed by the account-holder’s original post. Compared to the structure of a platform built intentionally for communication and relationship-building such as message boards, there is no opportunity for equal participation.
On a platform like Instagram, there is a scarcity of “air time”—meaning opportunity for one’s contribution to the platform to be seen—as the algorithm limits who sees posts rather than sharing it to all an account’s followers in chronological order. Access to air time hinges on engagement, which is not within one’s immediate control as it is dependent on the audience’s and an AI’s behavior. Striving for air time can also look like vying for recognition from those with more followers that give them access to air time; at worst, this goal of recognition can come from manufacturing rivalry or attempts to sabotage those with a larger following. The presence of likes cultivates competition and an overreliance on social approval (the flipside of which is a fear of rejection). All together this can understandably lead to psychological distress, especially when substituting relationship-building with the experience of using Instagram.
While individual relationships may be formed in private DMs, community-wide relationships cannot thrive. An account-holder cannot cultivate a community on this platform by virtue of the power imbalance and relational limitations of the platform’s architecture. Instagram is not built for cultivating community, but an audience. It is a marketplace. Instagram’s architecture is one that, in terms of relational potential, can at best build a customer base for creators or business owners, and at worst foster cult-like dynamics between a leader and followers. Calling a large audience a community is at worst a marketing ploy, at best a naïve misunderstanding.
Some argue that an Instagram account can be a community, so long as the account holder works hard enough and is “accountable” to their audience. Given the platform’s relational limitations, “community accountability” is a concept that means nothing in this context except an ethos of “the customer is always right” dressed up in a social justice buzzword. Forming a relationship with an audience where one is “accountable” to their demands and perceptions is a recipe for psychological disaster. One cannot be personally “accountable” to the whims and feelings of 20,000 people, even—or perhaps especially—in the context of (allegedly) sharing ideological values.
Indeed the architecture of social media is a major reason why cancel culture is so widespread. (This is something Clementine and Jay from Fucking Cancelled talk about in their theory about the Nexus, too.) I believe that the impulse for cancellation as ritualistic public humiliation always has and always will exist. Yet, I believe that social media not only provides a platform for that impulse to play out on a global scale—it actually rewards it with virality and turns public humiliation into a spectacle. By participating in the accountability spectacle, we are hurting everyone involved and allowing these companies to profit off our cruelty. The accountability spectacle is little more than a gladiator show, and all profits from spectating go straight to the technocrat oligarchs who are content to let us gleefully tear each other down as the planet burns, crumbles, melts, and explodes around us.
We need more clearly defined understandings of our social roles and limitations as both online figures and audience members. We also need to fully recognize how corporate social media’s profit-optimizing architecture has severely impacted our ability to forge meaningful, equitable, secure relationships online. Its relational limitations must be contended with, both so we can responsibly engage on a marketing platform like Instagram, and so we can imagine how to build online communities outside the confines of algorithmic, for-profit advertising media that has dominated and misrepresented itself as “social media” geography over the last many years.