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On being social - Instagram changes and virtual coffee breaks

Instagram changes and social media

This week I’ve been feeling very old. I keep hearing myself start sentences ‘well back before . . .’ and then tumbling into a rabbit hole of all the different iterations of online community that I have known.

For this summer is the twenty first summer that I have spent chatting on the internet to people that I don’t actually know in real life. Back then, rocking a small baby to sleep, I spent my time on forums - mainly gardening forums - where I chatted to established flower growers in the US. I logged on every night and discussed seed saving and staking and how difficult it was to make a living growing things.

We were bound together by a nerdy interest in a very niche subject. There is no way that I would have started a cut flower farm without the generous gift of experience from people who lived where it was a normal thing to do.

A couple of years later and I had signed up to the blog hosting site Blogger and begun writing about wanting to move to the country, starting a cut flower business, about crafting, parenting, craving a different way of life. Thousands of others were doing the same, and we linked together with sidebar lists of other blogs - a blogroll - which we thought readers would enjoy. A RSS feed via my email kept me in touch with new posts. It was a community that was always there, a community that was quite different from the one I physically lived near to. It was a community where I felt less peculiar. In a single morning I could read first hand accounts of corncrakes in Iona, cereal choices in Tesco, turning the heel of a sock, sexing baby chicks. This may not seem unusual now - but back in 2003 it seemed amazing. The chance to see the everyday lives of people all over the world just blew my mind.

Commenting and conversations were real and involved, there was real joy in connection. Blogs weren’t exactly beautiful back in the 2000s, but the writing ranged from the everyday to breathtakingly intimate. What blogs weren’t however was commercial. In the early days of blogging - certainly in the circles where I wrote and read and commented - the point was the writing and the sharing and the connection.

The blogs were a treasured place for self expression - whether that was to riff on getting a double buggy wedged in the doors of Mothercare or to describe the joys of finding sea kale growing wild. There was no money. If you blogged you were doing it for love.

Another couple of years later and I became aware of ‘content marketing’. The first I knew of the term was when I was asked if I would be interested in teaching a course on it - for this was seemingly what I had been doing on my blog. Marketing. And suddenly it felt like ‘blogging properly’ required a whole new layer of thought - the choice of subject, the SEO terms, the meta tags - designed to get new readers and to send them on elsewhere to buy.

The professional blogger became a thing. Blogs began to take adverts to cover costs - allowing them to spend more time and create more useful content. Many blogs became either bait or business - the best of them flourished and began making money for their creators, whole worlds of possibility opened up where creating could pay.

I’m not quite sure why but gradually the RSS feeds that were used to curate the blogs you were interested in petered out. I googled and some suggest it is because it was difficult to track ad revenue, others that the newly arrived social media gave ‘A list’ bloggers more viral reach. The one I had used, Googlefeed, was dropped in 2013 and somehow it became too time consuming to find all the blogs individually and I gradually stopped reading most of them. Once the connection was broken I never quite got back into them, the backlog seemed too great. Thinking back this morning I remembered lots of names of makers whose writings had brought me great pleasure - The Black Apple, Alicia Paulson, Little Cotton Rabbits - and went to check them out . . . on Instagram.

For the reason that all of this has come up this week is, of course, that many people are upset about the changes on Instagram. The way that it is becoming more commercial with constant ads and suggested posts, the way that video is being promoted over still photography, but more than that I think the way that it feels we can no longer find our friends. We log on and there is suddenly a lot of noise and jumping, quick cuts, sudden music - I currently have adverts for high performance cars and videos telling me I could lose weight by buying this or that supplement - it feels as though I have wandered through the wrong door.

I can of course take control of my feed: I can snooze suggested posts, I can edit what ad subjects are shown, I can stick to the ‘following feed’ - but it still feels odd.

Sarah Statham of Simply by Arrangement, a mentor to florists who has been a calm voice amidst the ‘do we all have to start doing reels’ panic, asked this week what small businesses who have used Instagram as a marketing tool will do. Where do they intend to spend their time today, tomorrow, next year? Is there an alternative? Or should we simply keep showing up as we want to show up. I think that is perhaps all we can do.

I do not have a massive Instagram following. I tend to only follow people that I chat with, primarily Studio Club members and friends. For me it is most of all a place where I browse while I drink my morning coffee.

I’m not, as you might guess already, a naturally strategic person. Yet I’m aware, with my business hat on, that most people who sign up to this newsletter or join the Studio Club have found me on Instagram.

At first that made me a little despondent, for if people can no longer find posts by the people they follow I may simply disappear from view. But then I realised that my reliance on Instagram is only true of the past five years. For the first people on my newsletter list were those whom I chatted with on those early cut flower forums. Of the first 100 people to sign up for the Studio Club seventy had been reading my blogs since the mid 2000s. The lesson is perhaps that while the platform might change, the wish for true connection doesn’t, that we will always find our people.

I’m most concerned about having somewhere for those virtual chats over coffee and while I personally hope that Instagram fine tunes its algorithm and lets us choose to keep things still if we wish, I know that if it doesn’t there will be somewhere else that appears to host.

And in the meantime I’m very grateful that I decided to go full circle, back to an old school forum in the Studio Club, where I can sit with a cup of tea and catch up on everyone’s day.

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