Why Context Beats Content on Social Media!
Look at the drawing that Jenny has made! What do you think about this drawing? Would you hang it on your wall? Would it make you stop in your Instagram feed to give it a like or maybe even comment on it? Do you think it’s beautiful? Now keep in mind how you feel about Jenny’s drawing at this very moment.
There’s something you need to know about Jenny. She was 4 years old when she made that drawing and usually they would look much nicer. But when she did this particular one her hands were trembling because she had been at the hospital for several months receiving treatment for leukemia. Jenny passed away only hours after she finished that drawing. This drawing, that you’ve just looked at, was a little girl’s last act in this world. Look at it again! Do you think it’s beautiful now? Do you maybe even feel that slight tension in your chest thinking about Jenny? How do you feel about Jenny's drawing right now as compared to just a few moments ago?
Do you wonder what has changed in these last few moments? Well, first I showed you a piece of content completely devoid of context. You probably judged it like any other image you see on Instagram every day. When I told you more about the image you suddenly realized the context in which it was created. Understanding this changed your relationship with that image.
Your Content is on Instagram NOT in an Art Gallery!
Many of us are disappointed by the low interaction they get from their images on Instagram. If that applies to you, you should realize that you are not an artist who has their work exhibited in an art gallery. Of course, maybe you put in much work, artistic intelligence, and time. Maybe your work would be a success if only it hung in an art gallery. Maybe. But it’s not in a gallery and it has to compete with a thousand other images that are all considered equal because they all get 0.2 seconds (the time it takes your eyes to scan an image). On social media people just don’t have the time to think about your images as they would in an art gallery.
Compare all the thought you and other visitors put in when at an exhibition with the likebacks and follow4follows on Instagram. You might righteously think now that Instagram doesn’t care about good photos and that it doesn’t deserve your attention. In a way you'd be right. The accounts of famous photographers aren’t the biggest accounts on Instagram. Celebrity still reigns supreme on Instagram. That is because contrary to popular belief Instagram is not an image platform. Instagram is a social platform that happens to use images.
But Other Mediums Have More Time
A novel has over 300 pages and many readers will patiently read through a 100 pages before deciding that the novel is not to their liking. A movie is 90+ minutes long and people don’t expect the inciting incident to happen before the 20-minute-mark and generally wouldn't feel impatient if there was no inciting incident before the 30-minute-mark. Often people will watch an entire movie even if they don’t like it. Very rarely do people leave a movie theater. Think about it. How many times have you left the movie theater in your life before the movie was over?
The whole thing seems unfair now, doesn’t it? Novels, movies, and even artistic exhibitions will create their own context. They have ample time and get enough attention from their audience to do so. So how can you survive on social media if you have something to say? How can you create a context if no one will give you the time to do so? The answer is that you can use existing context and work from there. What I mean by that is that we all collectively agreed on how we use Instagram, Twitter or any other social medium.
Context on Instagram
You already know what people post on Instagram. Photos of coffee and food, photos of their travels, and their incredibly happy life. Now why should people in this context of Instagram as a whole care about your very context. The easiest way is for people to get to know you. This works whether you’re a celebrity, whether you're friends with people who follow you or they know you from another platform like your blog and came over to check out what you post on Instagram. You’ve probably noticed that your friends tend to comment most of your own posts wishing you fun on your travels for example. Many people also comment on celebrities' posts even if they don’t have anything in particular to say about the post itself. And then there’s the "I came from the Reddit-mothership to check you out."
As you can see there is a lot of context that people care about. There’s everything from the mundane (like coffee) to the inspiring (a drone shot of some remote cloud-covered place). For you it all comes down to who your audience is. If you want to post the things that are important to you right now, then that’s okay and mainly people who know you will follow you and comment. If you want more, however, you’ll have to latch on to existing context first. Moreover, since you are unknown to the rest of the world (unless you’re a celebrity) you have to create your own visual identity. This is what people recognize when they pause for 0.2 seconds in order to look at your photo. That’s why it’s important to stay visually consistent. The keyword is visually. It’s hard to notice thematic consistency before visual consistency on Instagram when only spending 0.2 seconds on an image. Moreover, people follow accounts for one thing and one thing only. They don’t want you to satisfy more than one need. They will find someone else’s account for that. That’s the context of Instagram. That is how we, the users of Instagram, have collectively agreed to use Instagram. Within this framework you can create your own context. Just like a movie establishes a tone or genre and then subverts it, you can too. But just like the movie (or any other medium for that matter) you have to earn the right to do so first.
When you have established your account visually and thematically you can start to build your own context. Only after you have found followers that care about what you have posted you can start with images that demand more time and an explanation to be understood.
This shot of a ferry. What does it mean? How could we enhance the experience for the interested viewer? We can give them our own context so they feel the same about that image as we felt when we took it. A caption might be:
This was the last leg of a long awaited journey when I was a kid — the ferry from Split to the island. Only the ride on the ferry separated us brothers from rummaging through the luggage to find our speedos and taking the first swim of the year. School was forgotten, an obligation belonging to a different world. Everyday we'd run down to the beach over our mother worrying whether we had put on enough sunscreen. Each summer there was one particular morning when I woke up in my bed and realized I was now tanned enough not to have the need for sunscreen standing between me and swimming. We got freakishly tanned after weeks in the summer sun. Only our butts, well protected by the speedos, would remain snow white and, to our delight, almost seemed to glow in the dark. The hot midday sun was conquered by sitting in the shade and eating juicy, ice-cold watermelons. For years to come, nothing would beat the memories I had made here. But people change and perspectives shift...
If you want to produce content that matters, you first have to learn the context in which you want to position your content. I think Picasso said it best. “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”
If you liked this piece of content, please like, share, and consider following me on social media. YouTube — where I give insight into various topics and deal with the creative aspects of photography and video. Facebook — is the hub where I post all the latest updates. I have two Instagram accounts — one with a general theme and one for fashion & lifestyle. Twitter — if you’re feeling adventurous and want to tread into uncharted no man’s land.