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What’s an image worth?

A tsunami of #NoFilter Instagram pix is sweeping the web, but is there something brands can learn from the authenticity vs. artifice debate?
People love to follow other people because the lives of others are interesting, even if – perhaps especially if – these lives are entirely manufactured, filtered, Photoshopped…in short, fake. There’s nothing new about this; it’s what soap operas and magazines have been about since the year dot. Even a heavily bearded Neanderthal most likely thought, ‘Ug, that Cro Magnon man is really rocking the clean-shaven look this spring’, and probably followed him around a bit, gawping admiringly. But we don’t just follow celebrities; we follow brands too, and for all manner of reasons. How we follow and engage with brands on platforms such as Instagram is an area that many businesses and organisations are keen to explore. For businesses that want to understand the way followers operate online it can be worth first taking a look at the presence of the Instagramerati, or Instars.
The motivation for following Instagram celebs might be down to their aesthetically pleasing, aspirational lifestyles, or perhaps because we sincerely care about the intricacies and nuances of their lives – real or otherwise.
So what could be more intriguing than an artfully constructed Instagram persona coming to life to reveal the personality beyond the filter? The blemished, the emotional, and the vulnerable person behind the image stepping out to say, ‘Honestly, it’s not real life’? Insta star and model, Stina Sanders, recently exposed how followers reacted to glam-free selfies by uploading shots of herself defuzzing, heavily hungover and even at the IBS clinic and at her therapist’s. Immediately – possibly predictably – 5,000 followers ditched her, but then something more interesting happened: people started to engage. Sanders revealed how she actually yielded more likes for her less flattering photos than her carefully styled shots – in particular from women. Her followers began to interact with her more authentic Instagram presence by reaching out on topics such as anxiety issues. Her newfound authentic Instagram presence had garnered sincere interest from her followers, who sought to reach beyond the mere click of a ‘like’.

Instagram: Evolution or Revolution?

Essena O'Neill Famously Quit Instagram in 2015 The adage ‘image is everything’ may once have been true for Insta models like Sanders, and Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neil, who also famously eschewed a life of online celebrity for being tearfully ‘real’. But are these online stars actually bidding farewell to the social-media-verse entirely? Or are they simply swapping an artfully constructed portrait of perfection for another carefully constructed image of apparent authenticity? Either way, both will undoubtedly occupy public platforms in one package or another, be it a YouTube apologia, or a confessional soon-to-hit-the-shelves autobiography.
So what does this apparent shift in Instagram attitudes – a platform for which there have been over 144million #NoFilter hashtags – actually mean? Has there been a genuine revolution in perspective, a movement that has taken many thousands of people from a place of artifice to reality overnight? Or has there simply been a gentle evolution in the way Instagrammers are now offering up another, subtler viewing of their lives?

Vanity versus value

So what does this well-documented attitudinal shift among Instagrammers mean for businesses and brands? Increasingly, Instagram has been a successful social platform from which to flog one’s wares, with the parallel aims of attracting and researching visitors, enhancing reputation, or consolidating perception. How useful are the Insta stars’ lessons on authenticity to the average brand?
This all depends on what a brand is looking for. If posts successfully pull in impressive numbers of likes then this might be enough to satisfy one business or organisation; but is this simple vanity? After all, it’s easy to ‘like’ something and then leave it there; no emotional investment needed. On average, for every 33 likes, you’ll receive one comment. But what if the comments to ‘like’ ratio were increased? If a user responds to content with a more meaningful interaction – sharing pictures, or responding to images with a comment – then this is surely the more valuable and desirable response for businesses. The ‘authentic’ approach taken by the likes of Sanders and O’Neil is a trend that may well fall out of fashion in a few weeks’ time, therefore, brands must work hard to be conscious of how they can best cultivate a direct and valuable relationship with their followers beyond the harvesting of likes.