If you’re an Instagram user, you’re probably familiar with the importance of Hashtags. Just like on Twitter, hashtags let you assign a topic to your photos, and using hashtags allows other users to find your work. If you want to grow your account you really need to use this technique as doing so can mean a big difference in the amount of people that see your work. There is a dark side to using hashtags on Instagram however, and it’s to do with the rise of aggregate accounts.
There are more and more Instagram accounts popping up that are crowdsourcing their content. They are typically collections based on a theme, such as “best of x” or “images of x city” type of thing. They are basically aggregating other people’s Instagram pictures under the guise of a certain topic. Most of them use the same technique to source their images. They will say something like: “use x hashtag to get featured”. Because of the lack of any kind of social sharing features on Instagram, akin to twitter’s re-tweet functionality, people who are re-sharing your content, are doing it by downloading your image, and re-uploading it to their own accounts.
While on the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this concept when used legitimately, and you can argue that they are exposing artists to a wider audience. I don’t have a problem with some of the more reputable accounts that do this and approach it in the right way, by using unique hashtags that are obviously only associated with that account. The problem is that others are using generic hashtags to justify taking peoples pictures and posting them to their own Instagram feeds. People are unwittingly “submitting” their images to these accounts because they are using such generic and broad ranging terms for their hashtags, and then they post the images without asking. And while they may be giving credit to the original poster, they’re still using the image without permission, because they will claim that it’s been given based on your use of “their” overly generic hashtag.
I’ve had my images used without my permission several times. The hashtags that they were picking up on were completely generic and innocuous, terms like “Dublin” and it never even occurred to me that they might be used in such a fashion.
I’m sure many of the people running these accounts don’t think that they’re doing anything wrong. I’m sure that in their minds, they are promoting your work, so you should be ok with it. In my mind however, taking other peoples images without permission, and re-posting it to your own account, regardless of whether you give credit, is wrong.
I question the promotional value of these accounts for your work anyway. I recently had an image “picked up” by one of these accounts and it had thousands of likes. I got maybe ten additional followers from it. Because Instagram doesn’t allow links in the descriptions, and because there’s no “re-gram” feature, the best someone can do is link to your profile, and people rarely follow that link. These aggregate accounts can run into the hundreds of thousands of followers, but maybe 1% or less of that get’s passed on to you when they share one of your images. I noticed a particular image on one of these accounts had over 10,000 likes, but following through to the original artist’s account, and they only had between one and two hundred likes on average. At the end of the day, these accounts are reaping the benefit of your images, not you, the original artist.
I know some people like to argue that you shouldn’t get caught up in like counting, but it’s the only real metric to measure engagement on Instagram. It’s not a matter of vanity, it’s a matter of judging how much of a return on your time investment you’re getting.
I think that there are two solutions to this problem. The most obvious and simple one, is for the people running these accounts to ask before posting other people’s work, and not assume that because you’ve used a certain hashtag you think it’s ok for them to take your work. If you really are about promoting other artists, and not just about crowdsourcing content for your own goals, then it shouldn’t be a problem to send someone a direct message and ask permission first.
The other solution is for Instagram to implement a proper “re-gram” mechanism, similar to twitter’s re-tweet. That way when someone wants to share another Instagram image, they don’t have to download it and re-post it to their own accounts, and proper credit will be passed on to the original image and the original artist.
I get that many people probably don’t have an issue with this, as otherwise these accounts wouldn’t be so popular in the first place. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does take issue with this though. I don’t want my work promoting some other service or topic that I don’t agree with. Also, it’s stealing. It’s a straight forward case of copyright infringement, that’s been tacitly accepted because so many people are doing it. While it’s fine if you intended to submit your work to one of these accounts, but those using intentionally vague and generic hashtags to justify scooping up there peoples pictures to promote their own accounts and whatever message or service that may be associated with it, is just wrong. This is only going to get worse because it’s been legitimised. There are even tutorials out there now on how to use this technique to grow your followers and promote your business. Somehow, on Instagram this kind of mass copyright infringement has become normalised.
Whatever your feelings are about this, I think it’s important to be aware of. I’m sure that there are many people who use Instagram who have had their pictures used like this and don’t even realise. It’s also something i think Instagram needs to deal with as this will undoubtedly end in either real artists avoiding the platform leaving it to be just junk. Either that or it will end in a massive lawsuit.
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