At the end of 2021, influencer and blogger Jess Ann Kirby announced that she would be taking a two-week break from Instagram, the platform where she makes the majority of her business income.
She was tired of the Instagram creator game — how she always felt like she had to be on the app or risk her posts being hidden by some mysterious algorithm. She was fed up with the endless scrolling, which she felt was taking up so much space in her brain that she had little creative energy left at the end of the day. And she had begun to feel conflicted about her reliance on Instagram amid claims that the platform is having a harmful effect on the mental health of teenage girls.
The break, which she took around the winter holidays, turned out to be illuminating.
“In just a few weeks, I had so much mental clarity,” Kirby, a fashion and lifestyle blogger based in Rhode Island, told BuzzFeed News. “To the point where I realized, it's almost like Instagram was giving me brain fog, because it's just so consuming.”
This solidified a decision she had wanted to make for a while. Now, Kirby said, she will spend the rest of 2022 diversifying her business revenue streams in order to hopefully get off Instagram, where she has nearly 170,000 followers, for good by the end of the year.
“As the years have gone on and Instagram has changed, it's feeling less and less like it's a good fit for me personally and from a business perspective,” Kirby said. “Financially, it's incredibly rewarding, but it's gotten to the point where it's starting to feel like it's not worth it anymore.”
Kirby’s feelings are not unique. Many creators have expressed similar frustrations about Instagram over the past year, and some are making big changes about how they run their businesses. Fashion blogger Natalie Borton announced in March 2021 that she would be stepping back from Instagram partnerships, saying she was “ready to change things up.” Lynzy Coughlin of the blog Lynzy and Co announced in November 2021 that she would also be leaving Instagram and deleted her account, which had nearly 500,000 followers, in December. Home renovation bloggers Anna and Gabe Liesemeyer recently said they would be taking a step back from Instagram, posting less on their Instagram stories, phasing out ad deals, and working on growing their design business. And Erin Kern of the blog Cotton Stem officially quit the creator industry entirely at the end of last year, telling her nearly 600,000 Instagram followers “please know you’ll be missed.”
All of the aforementioned influencers cited similar reasons to Kirby as to why they are making changes, which are familiar to anyone who has been working through two years of a global pandemic. Their mental health is suffering, and they need more balance in their lives. They are ready for a change.
However, some influencers also blame Instagram for creating an unsustainable work environment that they said has led to their burnout. Kirby said that over the past several years, she has begun to feel chained to the platform’s endless algorithm switches because the majority of the brand deals she made were dependent on the platform. This kept her in a constant state of trying to please Instagram and left her no time to pursue other revenue streams. The stress and frustration left her tired and overwhelmed, she said.
“All of a sudden you realize, oh my god, so much of my business is dependent on Instagram because I've put so much time here because this is where brands are spending their money,” she said. “But at the same time, I want to have control over my business. I don't want Instagram to have control over it.”
A spokesperson for Instagram declined to comment for this story.
Coughlin told BuzzFeed News that even though her revenue from her business has dropped precipitously without Instagram (she declined to give a specific percentage), it’s a sacrifice she is willing to make to build a better career for herself.
“The way I see that is that if you never jump off a cliff, you're never going to know how it ends,” she said. “I mean, I could just sit there and say a million times, Oh well, I'm not going to make nearly as much money anywhere else, which is true. It's true for the time being.”
She’s hoping to set an example for other influencers to find spaces to diversify their revenue as well and begin to make money on platforms they own and control.
“I wanted to make a statement by saying, You can do this, you just have to be willing to take that jump and then be in that limbo part,” she said. “I'm in that limbo part, but it doesn't scare me. I feel like there's a lot of opportunity in this space, and I do feel like it just takes a lot of preplanning to figure out where you want your space and your brand to go eventually.”
“I want to have control over my business. I don't want Instagram to have control over it.”
These influencers are making changes amid an interesting time for Instagram. For years, Instagram had a rather laissez-faire approach to the creators who drive revenue to the platform, offering them little in the way of bonuses or support. There was also no way to make money directly through the app, because revenue from ads and affiliate links were third-party. So hosting your business exclusively on Instagram had some major downsides. Not only was your revenue completely at the mercy of how Instagram chose to share your content with your followers, but you were also at risk of losing it entirely if the app disabled or suspended your account.
This hands-off approach is different from other platforms like YouTube, which has nurtured its homegrown talent by highlighting creators on billboards and running programs with perks and a dedicated support team. YouTubers can make money on their videos through ads, and the site also rewards creators who reach certain milestones, like 1 million subscribers — a simple gesture that has earned the company a lot of goodwill (as evident by how excited YouTubers get about receiving their “1 million” plaques). TikTok also supports its creators directly, through initiatives like the Creator Fund and by helping creators match with brands through its creator marketplace.
In 2021, Instagram made a change. During the company’s first-ever “Creator’s Week” in June, the company announced multiple initiatives that would allow creators to make money directly through the platform, as opposed to through brand deals for sponsored content and third-party apps that provide affiliate links, like LTK. In July, Instagram said $1 billion would be spent on these programs by the end of 2022, with the first money-making opportunities going to creators who make video content like Reels and Instagram Lives.
“Our goal is to be the best platform for creators like you to make a living,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a press release. “And if you have an idea that you want to share with the world, you should be able to create it and get it out there easily and simply — across Facebook and Instagram — and then earn money for your work.”
At the time, I wrote that the move seemed to be, at least in part, driven by complaints from Instagram influencers, who had expressed frustration both with the app's lack of support of their businesses (they say it is often difficult to get tech help if there is a problem with their account) and with keeping up with what the platform wanted them to produce. Many influencers have complained on their Instagram stories that it is hard for their followers to see their content, that they constantly have to change their content in order to give Instagram what it wants, or they have to resort to gimmicks, like loop giveaways, to grow. Instagram declined to comment for this story.
Keeping up with this game has been a major source of stress and frustration for Kirby, who said she has not grown her Instagram follower count significantly in more than three years.
“My stats have been stagnant for years now, no matter what I do,” she said. “A lot of people who wanted to do it honestly and didn't do these giveaways or buy followers, it was kind of like Instagram made it so the game was not fair anymore, like you had to kind of cheat to get ahead.”
Over the past few years, Kirby said, her success on Instagram has seemed to be tied to the amount of time she’s spent on the app. According to Kirby, the more time she was active on Instagram — sharing content and engaging with her followers — the better her Instagram analytics for engagement became and the more people saw her posts. If she took breaks from the app or didn’t post for a while, she said her numbers would drop.
“It's not like this is just in my head, I mean, I've literally seen this happen in my analytics… If I'm not on the app all the time, my content doesn't get seen,” she said.
She also felt annoyed that Instagram was pushing her to produce content like Reels, which she said didn’t feel organic to her brand. Instagram has heavily promoted Reels, its TikTok rival, and showed its dedication to the feature by making it the first way influencers could make money on Instagram. For Kirby, she felt her business goals were becoming completely misaligned with what Instagram wanted her to create.
“It's kind of just reached a point where I'm like, This is not the content I want to do, Instagram wants me to do it,” she said. “So I just need to change directions and do what I actually want to do and what I'm good at and what my content is perfect for.”
Coughlin’s first breaking point with Instagram came during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a physician assistant married to a physician, she had been horrified by what she felt was the influencer industry’s lack of response to what was going on. Even with all the horrors going on in the real world, many of the people she followed on Instagram continued to post links to sales and talk about their lives as if nothing had changed. She felt let down and thought it was a “huge red flag” about where the industry was going.
“It's all about capitalism,” she said. “It's not like caring about the actual welfare of the community that follows you.” Throughout the rest of 2020, Coughlin set aside her usual content about motherhood and fashion and shared information about the virus and vaccines. She said it cost her around 100,000 followers, but she felt like she was doing some good.
Her next breaking point was in January 2021, when she decided to take a monthlong break from Instagram. Coughlin had been blogging since 2008 and had been on the app for more than 10 years but realized she had never taken a significant “vacation” from posting.
Like Kirby, Coughlin said her break was illuminating. Once she was able to wean herself from checking her phone constantly, she said she felt a clarity she hadn’t felt in a long time.
“I almost can't even put into words … the comfort and the level of stress just went down significantly, it's so hard to even comprehend,” she said.
Over time, Coughlin felt like running a business on Instagram was a rat race and compared finding success on the app to gambling. She said one day she would have a post overperform and get a ton of engagement and response. The next day, a very similar post would completely “dive-bomb,” she said. This meant she spent more time on the app, trying to figure out how to replicate her past success.
“This is what brings people back to other addictive things, is that there's this mystery to it. Like some days you win, some days you don't,” she said.
But after her break, Coughlin made the decision to leave Instagram entirely. First, though, she had to figure out how to keep at least part of her business revenue. She had a blog where she has always been able to make a commission from affiliate links via LTK, and started a Patreon and a newsletter for her most loyal followers. She noticed she had a core number of followers who would view her Instagram stories consistently and was able to convert approximately the same number of followers over to her newsletter. This made her feel confident that she would continue to reach her true fans, who really cared about her content. She also launched a podcast, Motherhood Meets Medicine, and spent most of 2021 building it so when she left Instagram she could begin to sell ads against it.
“I have found such amazing feedback, where people are like, I can’t even begin to tell you how much more I prefer having everything … in one place that I get once a week.”
Coughlin is happy with her progress, but her revenue from these channels doesn’t match what she used to make on Instagram ad deals. Some of her partners told her they didn’t advertise on podcasts, so she couldn’t continue working with them. But some brands who she had good relationships with told her they were willing to follow her to her new ventures. She also was encouraged by the response to her now two newsletters, which have been received enthusiastically by her 40,000 subscribers.
“I have found such amazing feedback, where people are like, I can’t even begin to tell you how much more I prefer having everything … in one place that I get once a week,” she said.
Platforms like Substack or Patreon are becoming popular among many influencers, especially those who started out as bloggers, as I reported last year. Some influencers have been offering an optional paid version of their newsletter, or have launched “paid subscriptions” to a private Instagram page or a Patreon where they offer special perks, exclusive content, or even personal styling services. In many ways, these influencers are returning to their roots, as many of them started out as bloggers and made money primarily off their blogs until Instagram launched.
Seemingly in response to these trends, Instagram announced last month that it was launching a new Subscriptions service, which would allow followers to pay a monthly subscription to access premium content from the influencers they follow. As part of the subscription, followers will have access to exclusive Lives and stories from the influencer, the company said.
But for Kirby, these new creator programs are too little, too late. She’s excited about the possibility of diversifying her revenue streams and is planning to work on a blog and YouTube channel in the coming months to prepare for leaving the platform. She also will spend the year fulfilling her brand obligations on Instagram. She’s hoping that her renewed efforts in these ventures will lead to growing a sustainable business, but on her own terms.
Since making the decision to leave, Kirby said she feels at peace, and she hopes she’s at the forefront of a new frontier for the influencer industry.
“I hope that other people can feel like they can make this decision if they want to, because I do feel like a lot of people in this industry feel like they're stuck on Instagram because that's where brands want to spend money,” she said. “And so they have to be there, whether or not they want to be and whether or not their mental health is suffering. I hope that this is maybe a turning point to show people that your life and your business can survive and thrive off of this.” ●