How Instagram Could Stifle a New Generation of Poets

How Instagram Could Stifle a New Generation of Poets

Instapoetry has become a phenomenon — the hashtag #poetry currently crops up on 31.9 million posts — boosting poetry book sales and introducing a new generation to verse.

SourceWestend61/Getty

Why you should care

Because Instapoetry is under threat.

It all started when Nikita Gill realized that the number of likes on her most successful Instagram posts had stalled.

“I had been getting about 20,000 likes but then I noticed they were just staying the same even though my follower numbers rose by almost 60 percent last year,” says the 31-year-old British-Indian writer. Gill had more reason than most to worry about the reaction to her posts. She is among Britain’s best-loved “Instapoets,” as writers who post their work on the social media platform are known.

Conceived as a photo-sharing space, Instagram’s format also proved ideal for quotes and poems; writers often add illustrations and retro fonts to make a visual impact. Instapoetry has become a phenomenon — the hashtag #poetry currently crops up on 31.9 million posts — boosting poetry book sales and introducing a new generation to verse. The term, sometimes used disparagingly by literary gatekeepers, covers a range of work, united only in its publication on the platform.

It is part of a crucial role that social media plays in poetry, giving writers free platforms to get their work in front of readers and, by building up thousands of followers, to nurture and grow their own audience — all without having to overcome the hurdles of finding an agent or publisher.

Books by Instapoets — Canadian Rupi Kaur is the biggest seller — account for more than 12 percent of the U.K.’s $15.2 million poetry book market, helping drive a 50 percent increase in sales in this sector since 2014, according to Nielsen BookScan, which notes that women between the ages of 13 and 34 accounted for 38 percent of 2018 poetry book sales. In the U.S., Andrews McMeel, the publisher that picked up Kaur, saw its profits rise by a third in the two years to May 2018.

“The poets of Instagram have changed the way in which young people see poetry,” says Andrea Reece of Forward Arts Foundation, the U.K.-based charity responsible for National Poetry Day.

Gill’s verse explores the unrealistic expectations placed on young women and is popular with this demographic, including many from Black, Asian or other minority ethnic backgrounds. When she writes “the word ‘pretty’ is a skin/deep, six-letter prison they put you in,” or, in Fierce Fairytales, she retells folklore about silenced women from their viewpoint, the heart emojis stack up. Her followers’ response is keenest when she draws on her own experience of abuse, depression and survival, as she did in her first book, Wild Embers (2017).

Social likes aren’t just about sharing experiences for Gill: they are how she markets her writing. She has 522,000 followers on the platform and their interest in what she has to say means that her book sales during the past six months average about 750 a week in the U.K. and U.S., according to Nielsen.

But now Instagram is in danger of strangling the literary phenomenon to which it gave its name. Gill thinks that measures the Facebook-owned platform have introduced to boost its own commercial income are cutting her — and fellow poets — off from the fan base they worked hard to create.

“Instagram is making the platform more and more inaccessible for artists and small businesses unless we pay it money to boost our posts,” says Gill, who accuses the platform of deliberately tweaking the algorithms that place content in front of users.

When Instagram introduced its new algorithm in 2016 — other social networks such as Twitter have made similar changes — the platform claimed its aim was simply to make life easier. Previously what popped up on someone’s feed was purely chronological; users received updates from anyone they followed as and when these occurred. The new algorithm prioritized content from accounts that the user engaged with. People would still receive every post by the accounts they were following, but the algorithm-driven ranking pushed out the element of serendipity. When a post is relegated to the lower reaches of a follower’s feed, it is far less likely to be seen. In aggregate, that means fewer impressions for each post.

The switch had an immediate effect on the reach-per-post of Instapoets such as Gill, as their verse dropped off the screens of those deemed less-engaged followers. The platform offered advice on countermeasures but none of the suggestions worked for Gill.

“Originally [with the chronological feed] my posts would go to all my followers and then it fell to about 70 percent,” she says. “But over the past year, the number of impressions [which occur when a follower opens a post] has gone even lower: now they reach between 25 percent and 50 percent.”

Other Instapoets have similar stories. “Only a small percent of my followers see my posts now,” says Amanda Lovelace, a New Jersey-based poet whose collection The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One won the 2018 Goodreads poetry award. A recent post reached about 22,000 of her 72,000 followers. “Last year, when I had half the number of followers, my posts got about a 20,000 reach, which is not much difference.”

To reach more users, Gill is encouraged to pay to promote her content. Instagram will sell her chunks of 2,200-5,800 users for about $38 a go, she says, adding that it charges more than $1,200 a day for 43,000-110,000 users. Poets who promote their work by these means have little control over where it actually ends up. They can target certain demographics or delegate the task to Instagram’s algorithm, but many believe their posts are just bumped up the timelines of their existing engaged followers.

I spent nothing to build my original audience but have spent tens of thousands of dollars to maintain it.

Iain Thomas, South African poet

“When Instagram gives you the option to promote a post they are not upfront at all about the fact that you will mostly be promoting to the followers you already have,” says Trista Mateer, a Baltimore-based poet with 55,000 followers. “Instagram has built a system where you have to post every day and you have to pay every day for people to see what you post and if you don’t, all the years or months you spent creating this market for your work is completely irrelevant.”

This matters because a social media presence is vital to aspiring writers, says South African poet Iain Thomas: “If your work is not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or perhaps Reddit, then it simply does not exist.” Yet despite having 110,000 followers on Facebook, “a few hundred at most will see anything I post unless I pay for it to be boosted,” he says. “I spent nothing to build my original audience but have spent tens of thousands of dollars to maintain it.”

Publishers increasingly base their decisions to take on writers on the size of their existing social media following: authors are expected to do a lot of their own marketing online.

“The publishers don’t understand that we’re paying [social media platforms] for the people who are seeing the posts,” says Mateer. “So an author who makes an average of a dollar a book has to pay maybe $150 to promote a post that will sell maybe 50 books or so. The math on that is abysmal for the author.”

Instagram denies that its algorithm is driven by commerce, claiming it was introduced because users were missing their friends’ and families’ posts and to stop accounts with frequent posts dominating everyone’s feed. “We have a community of over 1 billion and work hard to help everyone have a positive experience,” says an Instagram spokesperson.

Yet the result, even if unintended, has been that a medium once celebrated as democratic and giving marginalized writers a voice, has become more selective and controlled.

“It’s great that social media enabled this,” says Reece. “It would be greater still if the social media business model recognized that algorithms can’t measure all value. The words of poets like Nikita are not just products, they can be lifelines to their young female readers because she opens an approach to huge taboo subjects.”

Gill has built up a following off social media that ensures her voice will be heard anyway. She recently cut down her posting on Instagram to about one post a week. But many aspiring artists do not have that option, she says.

“Whilst I am fortunate enough to have a large audience, the algorithm still affects my sales and I can’t help but feel that for an artist or writer just starting out, the algorithm will completely throttle and stop them from ever gaining the audience their art deserves.”

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By Jonathan Ford

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