Artist in the digital age

Where privacy concerns meet public expectations

As an artist in the digital age, I am expected to put myself and my work out there for people to see, for people to like, for people to share. By doing this, my work will gain attention and the exposure will potentially lead to new employment opportunities. However, I am also a very private person, and somewhat skeptical about the openness of the internet. This has left me at a crossroads. On one hand, I want my work to be seen by people I could never dream of reaching. On the other hand, I don’t want my private information, my likes, my habits, my interests, to influence or be influenced by the openness and ambiguity of the internet. There are many interactions on the internet, the visibility of this post for example, that force users to choose between privacy or publicity. While there are a lot of platforms out there that ask you to make these choices, I’m going to be looking at one in particular.

Image Source: Think Marketing


Instagram has been instrumental, for many artists, in sharing their visual work and the platform has evolved in many ways—some good and some not so good. The inclusion of video opened new possibilities for users to share their vision of the world. While the shift from a chronological timeline to an algorithmic one created somewhat of a roadblock. “As for the motivation behind the update, Instagram has cited simple logic: Unless you’re on 24/7, you are going to miss some pretty pertinent posts.”[1] What is considered a “pertinent post?” In his 2011 TED Talk, Eli Pariser spoke about how these algorithms “[move] us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”[2] Instagram is collecting data on our likes and our interactions with other accounts in order to determine not only our timeline but also the explore function. It is feeding us more of what we want and in some ways closing us off to other points of view, neglecting what we may need to see. While this may not be viewed as a bad thing, in the context of Instagram, for many independent artist this can be extremely detrimental.

Image Source — Bustle

There is a sort of “destructive loop” occurring for artist. How can an aspiring creative, with a small amount of followers, gain more followers on Instagram if their work never makes it to the top of the timeline or into the explore function? How can their work reach a wider range of people, outside of those who share their particular interests? In Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, she discusses the issue of transparency as it relates to various models. For companies looking to protect their algorithm, they use the excuse that “[it’s] intellectual property, and it must be defended.”[3] So how can artists on Instagram learn the “game” in order to fully benefit from what it has to offer? Perhaps they can’t. Pariser also talks about transparency in his TED Talk, using it as a call-to-action for companies like Facebook and Google. Urging them to give some control back to the users so that they can determine for themselves what gets through the filter or what doesn’t.[4] He concludes his talk with this powerful message, “We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”[5]

Instagram collects data on our likes, our interactions with other accounts, and even information on people we follow. Our data is being collected, both online as well as offline, almost completely unregulated, and in turn Instagram and marketers use this data against us. In Alice Marwick’s paper, “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined,” she address the collection of data by private corporations. She brings up an excellent point, “[while] the easy answer to these problems is to opt out of loyalty cards, Internet use, or social media, this is hardly realistic.”[6] In the context of Instagram, marketers use our data to feed us advertisements which are slipped into our timelines and Instagram uses our data to curate our explore function and present “prevalent posts” at the top of our timeline.

It’s interesting that in 2011, Eli Pariser talked about the “filter bubble” and how “if algorithms are going to curate the world for us…[we] need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important.”[7] And here we are in 2016 where Instagram has just rolled out it’s algorithmic timeline, still based on our data they’ve collected to show us what they think we want.

So, as an artist, what if we choose to be private on Instagram?

You are a bit out of luck. Private profiles do not show up in the explore tab, they don’t aggregate in hashtag filters, and they require a request to follow. It is a conscious decision I have made and often times grapple with. I’ve chosen to be private in order to protect my posts, control who can see them and as a result who can like or comment on them, however as an artist my work is not being discovered by anyone outside of my followers. I’ve done this as a privacy issue across most of my social media. But I often wonder if I should make my profile public or even create a brand new account in order to promote my professional work. This however leads me to wonder about the “destructive loop” discussed earlier. How will this new account grow if I don’t understand the system? By choosing a private profile, I understand that I will be hidden from discovery, however deep under the surface, my data is still being collected and used to control my timeline, my explore function, and now the ads that are being served to me. Privacy has only gotten me so far. While the private profile setting on Instagram has blocked my profile from the public, Instagram still collects data on my likes, my interactions with other accounts, and even information on people I follow. This information is somehow not private.

Can an artist in the digital age be both private and public?