Rachel Reichenbach likes to joke that she is the overlord of an internet frog cult. It’s not a bad job for a 22-year-old artist. Reichenbach, who is also a full-time college student in California, began selling keychains, pins, plushies, apparel, and other paraphernalia of her amphibian sketches in 2019, and as her Instagram audience grew, so did her sales. Unlike most people we call “creators” on the platform (specifically influencers), Reichenbach is not easily identifiable by her face on her social media. Instead, her drawings and animations of her signature blob-like, cartoon frog are what take center stage. Frogs are her brand and business, and Instagram was the cornerstone of her merchandising success.
Reichenbach’s shop Rainy Lune is a one-person enterprise, even as she accumulated more than 107,000 followers. She is responsible for communicating with vendors and customers, shipping out orders, and marketing her products. And since Instagram is where she reliably draws most of her website traffic (and sales, as a result), most of her promotional efforts depend on the app — and her ability to game its seemingly elusive algorithms.
“I can’t really take a break when so much of my income relies on posting and reminding people that I exist,” she told me. “I don’t run any ads, so everything I do is based on organic reach.” But increasingly, Instagram seems to be demanding more from its creators and business owners. It’s not enough to post and hope for the best; she needed a strategy.
Reichenbach showcases products on her feed and Stories every day, and she has a virtual Instagram storefront to display her offerings. Still, her goal is to direct buyers to her website so she can gather customer data for marketing materials. Instagram, for its part, wants a little more. In February, she was contacted by a representative from Instagram, who asked her to consider integrating the app’s “checkout” feature into her shop. The function would theoretically be more convenient for users since they wouldn’t need to leave the app to purchase an item — a potential boon to Reichenbach’s business. This wasn’t the first time Instagram reached out to her: She previously had a call with another representative in December and was encouraged to more proactively use the Reels feature to increase her overall engagement.
Instagram and its parent company Facebook have spent the past year integrating more commerce features onto their platforms. Initially, this emphasis was aimed toward businesses struggling amid the pandemic. Major social networks realized, however, there is significant revenue to be made through influencers and e-commerce; this attention has shifted toward creators and the burgeoning creator economy.
Instagram launched its inaugural “Creator Week” programming in early June. It was an opportunity to promote incremental updates to Creator Shops, an expansion of Instagram’s existing shopping features that was first announced in April, and its native affiliate tool, which allows influencers to earn a commission for the product purchases they drive within the app.
Creators with their own product lines, like Reichenbach, will be able to link their shop to their personal profile and directly work with preselected vendors and merchandise partners if they choose to release more items.
Some of the newly released features are directly applicable to her business: The affiliate tool, for example, could allow her to directly partner with a lifestyle creator and negotiate a commission rate. Instagram has also incentivized creators to use more of its livestream features through a “milestone” system that offers extra payout. Reichenbach was enthused that she could earn about $100 simply by streaming herself sketching frogs for an hour.
But these tools, while well-intentioned, might not wholly benefit — or even apply — to people who earn a living through Instagram. “Creator” is not a one-size-fits-all term, and their needs vary depending on audience size and niche. The writers of Means of Creation, a newsletter on the creator economy, argue that creators shouldn’t become attached to one platform or type of content. Rather, they should experiment with varying business models and monetization methods to find what works best for their audience and lifestyle.
Reichenbach isn’t among the many lifestyle and fashion creators that populate Instagram; she considers herself a mix of an artist and a small-business owner. She remains skeptical about updates that might increase her business’s dependence on the platform, even if it’s promoted under the guise of creator monetization. And while these tools are billed as a convenient way for creators to earn more money, there are no guarantees they can earn a living wage for this full-time work.
“As more social platforms begin to offer storefronts, influencers might be managing five to eight different shops on all these platforms and not own any of them,” said Kit Ulrich, general manager of Like to Know It, an affiliate tool for influencers. Instagram’s native affiliate feature will likely become a competitor to tools like Like to Know It, where creators earn commissions through a page that lists their endorsed products.
For this reason, some vintage clothing sellers have also withstood Instagram’s push to complete sales within the app. As helpful as it is for marketing, the platform’s rigid interface and rules don’t benefit how certain businesses operate. Jenna, a vintage seller from Portland, Oregon, prefers to use Instagram to market her garments, which she sells through Depop or her direct messages. Since she only has about 5,000 followers, Jenna has time to directly communicate with customers, which makes the selling process feel much more personalized.
“Direct messages are less transactional, and there’s the opportunity for conversations between a seller and a buyer,” she told me over Instagram messages. Meanwhile, some vintage Instagram accounts sell items through an informal bidding process, and since the sale goes to the highest bidder, there isn’t a set price to be displayed on the app.
After attending a seminar on Instagram’s checkout feature, Reichenbach decided to resist using it for her shop. In her opinion, the function isn’t beneficial for small sellers and prevents them from retaining customer information. “Instagram wants to insert itself as the middleman within these transactions,” Reichenbach told me, adding that other artists share this concern. “It would take commission from the sale, which is hard since I can’t always afford that. There are also rules about how sellers have to send out orders in a certain amount of days and a 14-day return policy. As a small seller, I can’t always adhere to that, and I rely on preorders to gauge interest.”
Reichenbach prefers her website to be the central domain where customers purchase her products, not Instagram. She enjoys the agency of her Shopify-powered store, but although Reichenbach is her own boss, her business largely depends on playing by the app’s rules. Most creators recognize this trade-off. It’s a constant tug of war in the realm of digital entrepreneurship.
In a recent blog post, Instagram sought to clarify misconceptions about its algorithm and explain how the app’s technology works. In summary, there is not one algorithm, but multiple variables that affect how a person’s feed, Explore page, Stories, and Reels can be organized.
“Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm that oversees what people do and don’t see on the app,” wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram. “We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose. We want to make the most of your time, and we believe that using technology to personalize your experience is the best way to do that.”
There are, however, certain in-app habits or tools that can increase a creators’ reach, even if there isn’t a singular mechanism in charge of that. When Reichenbach spoke to an Instagram representative in December, she was advised to post within a week: four to seven Reels; three feed posts; one to three IGTV clips; and eight to 10 Stories. It was a “highly unrealistic” standard, even as Instagram purports to care about users’ mental health.
Creators don’t always have to abide by the algorithmic ideal, though, and some are pushing back. According to Ulrich of Like to Know It, influencers and creators are realizing they have more power over their business decisions. “Influencers are building their own business and brands and curating products,” she said. “But they recognize that you don’t build brand equity by spreading it out across multiple platforms. You can use other platforms to find new consumers and market your brand, but it’s not feasible to operate so many separate stores.”
instagram asked to have a meeting with me last month & i learned why everybody’s engagement sucks lately. i share the results of my espionage with you, enjoy https://t.co/DKbg06lxru— rachel reichenbach (@rainylune) December 22, 2020
BuzzFeed News’s Stephanie McNeal recently described this sentiment as a “mini revolt” among Instagram influencers, who’ve felt that the app does not have their best interests at heart. Some have left or are on hiatus while others have channeled more effort into platforms like Patreon, OnlyFans, or Substack that allow them to directly monetize their fans. There is a growing push for creators to have ownership over their content and audience, rather than remain subjected to the whims of platforms. Creators have long been frustrated at the difficulty of earning a consistent living when their engagement metrics can fluctuate from month to month. This isn’t a problem specific to Instagram; YouTube vloggers, Twitch streamers, and young TikTokers have complained about being burnt out. Yet the ability to quit a platform cold turkey — to stop posting for weeks or months at a time — isn’t feasible for full-time creators whose income is primarily generated from their online activity.
Polly Barks, a zero-waste and sustainability educator, decided to erase her Instagram account in September after accumulating 27,000 followers. It wasn’t a decision she took lightly, but in the two years leading up to her departure, Barks saw a steady decline in her engagement, which affected her mental health. She eventually felt that her level of investment toward Instagram wasn’t delivering substantive results. “When you have a creator or business account, it’s hard not to be obsessed with the numbers,” Barks said. “You can see that your engagement metrics are going down, and you start to grow anxious.”
She currently writes a newsletter and works as a freelance marketing and sustainability consultant. The effect of leaving Instagram on Barks’s income has been marginal, partly because her work wasn’t entirely reliant on the app. “If you’re reliant on social media for the bulk of your income, it’s harder to quit like I did,” Barks said. “I think these updates are a way to keep people, especially bigger creators, on the platform. Whether they’ll get fair compensation for their labor and time spent on Instagram, I’m not sure.”
Most users aren’t accustomed to thinking of digital content as labor, but creator labor is crucial in generating revenue for platforms. This type of work might sound aspirational at first, Barks said, as someone who has successfully turned her passion into full-time work: “It’s not as great as it sounds when you have to work out your hourly rate.”
The creator economy thrives on a disaggregated, individualized culture of work, but its participants aren’t freed from the constraints of hustle culture. In fact, it’s easier for the realm of work and life to blend together, erasing any sense of digital autonomy when they’re logged online. Instagram’s latest creator tools are an opportunity for more users to directly earn money. It is also reflective of the app’s paternalistic hold over creators’ behaviors — how frequently they comment, post, share, and stream.
“You always feel like you have to be doing or posting something,” Reichenbach said. “There’s a lot of exhaustion, but what can you do? Instagram allowed me to have my own business.”