Please, don’t turn on notifications for my Instagram posts.

An alternative approach to Instagram’s new algorithm. There is a time to ask to be heard and followed — and there is a time not to ask, and to trust that the true blue humans will follow on their own.

Leah Pellegrini
Mar 28, 2016 · 5 min read

I have a large Instagram following — about 36 thousand people, to be semi-precise. Or, at least, 36 thousand “people.”

I was on Instagram’s official Suggested Users List back in September 2014. This meant that for a few weeks, when new users registered for the network, I popped up as a recommended account to follow.

People did what they were told. They hit the “follow” button.

The reason I was on that list was because I asked for it.

At the time, I was transitioning out of a full-time position at a New York-based public relations firm and attempting to go freelance as a writer — or something. I had fallen in love with iPhone photography as a creative hobby. On weekends, I wandered the city and snapped shots of crumbling Brooklyn buildings and shadows spilled between shiny Manhattan high-rises, searching the streets for symbolism, combing for a feeling of community in the eyes of passing strangers.

I attended local Instagram meet-ups to connect with others pursuing the same passion. My new Insta-friends told me about the Suggested Users List — a prestigious distinction, commonly coveted by those struggling to build their fan bases.

I put my public relations chops to use and sent an email to Instagram’s press contact. I explained what made my photography unique and why I believed I deserved to be considered for the List.

In other words, I pleaded, though smoothly, “Pick me.”

Instagram didn’t respond to my email. But they did honor my request. When it happened, I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and we were out to dinner. My phone started blinking incessantly, interrupting me with a bright buzz in between each bite of Caesar salad as my follower count climbed quickly from the hundreds to the thousands.

I was giddy.

Fast forward a few months to December 2014. The Instagram team announced that they would be deleting millions of fake accounts that “violated community guidelines,” and the masses shook their Emoji fists in resentful disapproval, scared to see their numbers plummet.

But I was pleased. My giddiness had faded. I had accumulated around 60 thousand followers, but at least half of them looked like bots, and my posts were plagued with spammy comments. Once I had the impressive stats, I realized that they didn’t matter as much as I’d anticipated. As grateful as I was for that prestige I had asked for, what I really wanted was to find and sustain a genuine online community who would care what I had to shoot, share, and say.

My following got chopped in half with that change, but today, I’m still left with numbers that don’t match up with the engagement on my posts. I rarely get more than 200 likes on any individual photo, even with 36 thousand “people” following me.

That’s because too many of them are the people I asked for — not people who asked for me.

I worry about this sometimes. I know there’s more I’m “supposed” to do if I want to actively attract more likes and comments. I could and probably “should” make the effort to seek out the sorts of authentic followers who would appreciate my style of photography and writing.

But the reason I got started on Instagram, way back when, was because I wanted to make art. I was trying to find myself, using photography as my lens. And for most of us, that was the case, if we think back to our earliest experiences with the original version of the app. We weren’t looking for Likes; we just wanted to see what happened when we added sepia-toned filters to our average flower images. We weren’t afraid to post the same picture three times in a row with slightly different aesthetics, so we could decide which one we preferred. We weren’t afraid of anything.

Instagram was not a science to be studied, a strategy to be mastered, a competition to be won. It was simply an artistic experiment to enjoy.

And that’s why I think that tomorrow’s new algorithm — the latest inevitable change that has everybody riled up in digital diatribes and sour outbursts of #SMH — is actually going to be good for all of us. That’s why I’m not urging my followers — will that word ever stop sounding so smarmy? — to turn on their notifications to see everything I post.

I think we all need to be reminded why we’re really filling our iPhone photo reels in the first please. If digital media has any chance of remaining a tool for creative expression, I think we need to relearn not to need outside validation for everything we produce.

Validation is nice. And to be fair, it has endowed me with all sorts of blessings for which I am extremely grateful. My Instagram notoriety is what inspired me to publicly share more of my art and writing, ultimately encouraging me to start my blog. It has afforded me some incredible business opportunities and introduced me to some of my closest friends. And, yes, I’ve scored a few exclusive event invitations and free pints of ice cream and jewelry, thanks entirely to that stint on the Suggested Users List.

So when I first read about the impending change, I got pissed, like everyone else. I briefly considered posting one of those graphics that urges people to turn on their notifications in order to keep me in their feeds.

And then I realized that “pissed” is just an easy swap for “scared.”

We are all so scared. We are all so afraid of falling to the bottom of the heap.

But we forget that we don’t need to rise to the top of the pack to make an impact. It is possible to be good — really, really good — at what we do, without the proof counted out in legions of Likes. A post that tells the simple truth — something that demands to be shared from an authentic, heartfelt inner urge — is the kind of thing that has the power to change someone else’s day. And that’s the reason we create, isn’t it?

“Following” is not synonymous with “caring.” I prefer love over Likes, and love isn’t the sort of thing that comes in hordes, that can be proven with the push of a button.

The people we want in our online communities— the real people — don’t need to turn on their notifications to make sure they don’t miss our posts. They’re the ones who already keep their eyes out for what we have to say and show. Who look and read and respond. Who know us by name. We’ll rise to the tops of their feeds automatically, or else, they’ll intentionally seek us out.

There is a time to ask to be heard and followed. And there is a time not to ask, and to trust that the true blue humans will follow on their own.

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