Blog by Professor Kris Erickson
When we create something, do we also engage in research? Can practice research open new perspectives on the regulation of creativity, technology and enterprise? On 29th March 2023, I was invited to take part in an interdisciplinary symposium on Developing Practice Research. The event was co-convened by Dr Jim Brogden (University of Leeds School of Media and Communication) and Prof Ed D’Souza (University of Southampton) and brought together a diverse range of scholars working in various ways on questions of creative practice and its relationship to academic research.
In my video-recorded presentation, I share new research about how the platform Instagram disciplines aesthetic choices by photographers. My paper emerges from a 4-year investigation of visual creativity on Instagram, from the perspective of practising creators. The process of creating, and especially trying to find an audience for my work, prompted reflection on the role of platforms – Instagram in particular – in shaping creativity.
This paper draws theoretically from the literature on electronic governmentality (Mehta & Darier, 1998), which considers how digital technologies discipline and surveil users, and how that discipline in turn shapes patterns of use. More recently, ‘platformisation’ (Helmond, 2015; Nieborg & Poell, 2018) has emerged as a concept to describe how the architecture and affordances of platforms shape behaviour, for example by placing users in direct competition with one another via metrics, or through rating and prioritisation systems that rank content. These systems can be notoriously opaque and resistant to empirical analysis, not least because user experiences are tailored and individualised via personal recommendation engines. Authors Perel and Elkin-Koren (2017) advocate for ‘black box tinkering’ as a methodology to confront opaque features of algorithmic systems. The practice of making – and breaking – things can be a sensible means of collecting data about the behaviour of platforms and their users. For example, significant empirical research on intermediary liability and copyright takedown has involved producing or uploading content to observe the reaction from platforms.
I observe five features of Instagram that discipline artistic practice. (1) First, because the platform uses its own criteria to judge the ‘quality’ of content and user accounts, existing offline social capital is of less value. Newcomers and established artists must equally play by the platform’s rules to garner a following. Attempts to flex one’s existing offline social network, for example by encouraging them to like or share one’s work, might result in a penalty for ‘inauthentic’ tampering with the algorithm. (2) Instagram uses personalised recommendation systems to determine which users will see a given item of content. Labelling work as intended for an artistic niche or sub-community will increase the chances of that work being seen by interested users. This is done via hashtags, and creative communities have organised themselves using that feature, to both mark their work and discover work by other creators interested in that niche. (3) Instagram uses early signals to determine the quality of a post and decide whether it should be seen by a wider audience. Marketing professionals recommend acquiring a small group of ‘true fans’ (Kelly, 2016) who will respond positively to new content and boost quality signals in the critical early minutes of a new post. Occupying a clear artistic or aesthetic niche with predictable content is one method of satisfying a fan base, but leads to homogeneity of output. (4) Instagram penalises users for linking ‘off platform’ in their posts or bio profiles. One response by the artistic community has been the emergence of ‘magazine feed’ accounts that curate and share work by others, substituting for offline artistic prestige that would normally be associated with publication or exhibition of one’s work. (5) Instagram is keen to promote the social networking affordances of its own platform, both as a way to increase user engagement and ward off competition from other social media platforms with growing userbases like TikTok. During the period of this study, Instagram rolled out ‘Reels’ short video functionality, encouraging content creators to use the feature by prioritising its appearance in other users’ feeds. Artistic communities responded by producing behind-the-scenes and self-presentation video content to supplement their main creative practice (still photography).
Platforms like Instagram have the potential to discipline artistic practice in numerous ways. They can do so directly, by penalising or promoting behaviour to suit the aims of their business. Discipline can also be indirect, for example via social norms that develop in response to the architecture of a given platform. For still photographers, this includes self-organisation around niches to enable the effective sharing of related work. These behaviours can produce path dependency: popular hashtags remain popular as they attract new aspiring creators hoping to find an audience. As the algorithm rewards certain types of content, new users are encouraged to reproduce that style in the hopes of gaining favour with the algorithm. This can have the effect of homogenising output and preventing exposure to bold or experimental ideas. Engaged, ethnographic investigation reveals that the disciplinary potential of creative platforms like Instagram is multi-faceted, involving coded architecture, formal and informal rules, and social norms of practice. Regulatory approaches to platform power should take account of the richness and diversity of communities of practice, and their role in resisting as well as reproducing platform discipline.