Whether you’re an avid or casual Instagram user, you may have noticed that over the last few months there has been a massive change to the way your feed looks.
In June 2016, Instagram announced that feeds “will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most”, arguing that this will improve the experience of their 100 million daily users, changing the way they interact with the photo-sharing app forever.
But this experience does not match up with what many users have experienced. Myself included.
I was taking a six month break when these changes was first rolled out last year. I came back to discover my engagement was down to at least a fifth of what it usually was, getting less likes and comments than I did when I had half of the 23,000 followers I currently do.
I was also missing out seeing content from people that I followed. Even my closest friends who regularly engage with me on Instagram weren’t seeing my latest posts come up in their feeds, and I was repeatedly seeing the same posts from days ago.
This has got even worse over the last few weeks, as Instagram makes more changes. Many people who followed Facebook’s similar trajectory, believe that this will force more people to pay for exposure to people who have already chosen to follow your content, even accounts (like mine) who aren’t using Instagram primarily to make money. Because of this, the more followers you have, the more you’re penalised, meaning you often get less engagement than people with much smaller followings.
It may sound silly or shallow to bemoan the loss of likes and comments, but for me, this has absolutely nothing to do with getting validation from social media.
It has everything to do with opportunity.
As someone with multiple invisible disabilities that leave me unable to work in a traditional way, I have relied on building my own projects, following, and career opportunities using social media. While my friends were out being able to work, study, party, and live the kind of life you would expect a 20-something to live, I was mostly confined to my bed, too unwell to do any of those things.
An ill-informed foray into ‘wellness’, led me to Instagram, where (along with a food diary) I started writing about my experiences of disability, finding catharsis in the venting power of my blog and my Instagram feed.People began to find my content and connect with what I was saying. Over the years, I amassed tens of thousands of followers, which opened up more opportunities than I could imagine.
I’ve been able to find work as a freelancer writer, content creator, and social media manager. I set up an international recognised youth journalism project in Libya, spoken at conferences, found actual jobs I could do remotely and flexibly (still, unfortunately, a rarity), and even got to appear on the BBC Ouch podcast twice!
Pretty much everything I’ve done over the last few years has been from the comfort of my beloved robot-bed, and is thanks to my online presence.
Social media gives disabled people opportunities like never before. While many still feel confined, or left even more disabled by society, the internet has opened up a whole other world. I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing if I was born just 15 years earlier and didn’t have access to the web or social media.
We’re building businesses, sharing our experiences, challenging perceptions, as well as finding support, companionship, and a new lease of life.
With social media networks focussing on making money over original content and their users, many people in the disability community can’t help but feel like those opportunities are being taken away from us once again.
Steph Bowen, who creates embroidered science-inspired art, says that she is scared about what the algorithm changes mean for her and her business:
“I haven’t even launched my shop yet, everything takes so much longer when you are doing it for the first time and dealing with illness at the same time, but I get most of my support from social media and I will be dependent on it to make my attempt at self employment as a chronically ill person a success. I have to put my business plans on hold for several months very soon (building work, house move and whatever recovery time I need after) and I am worried that with the changes I won’t be able to regain the following and interest after that break.”
Millions of people around the world rely on social media to connect with others and build their own communities. For those with disabilities, it’s often the one place they’re able to find people who truly understand. By sharing experiences and feelings, they have access to support that is often missing “IRL”, and these communities serve as lifelines, with real friendships forged across the digital divide.
As with Facebook (where it’s estimated that most pages now only receive 2% organic reach), it’s looking like Instagram will become a place where those with money to promote their content will be seen, while the rest of us are shouting into an increasingly deepening void.
The Golden Age of social media may be coming to an end, I just hope that this isn’t the end of the opportunities it has brought for many disabled people.