Ignoring the Algorithm and Letting the Magic In (A frank conversation about social media for artists)

I was around 13 when we first got internet at home. The slow dial-up kind. I was 19 when Facebook was invented. I’m not a technology curmudgeon, but perhaps growing up without social media embedded into my brain has given me a different outlook on it all. Well…I know it has. I have seen the shift in society over time. It’s odd that the internet has made the world more “connected” in one way, but I cannot escape the unsettling feeling that we are more disconnected than ever.

Using computer in 1999
My siblings and I using AOL 4.0 in 1999.

I think that is why I strive so hard to connect with my audience in a deeper way. To ignore the surface level matter and tap into something human again.

It’s not easy to share something deeply personal with the internet, yet most artists do this on a daily basis.
It’s not only uncomfortable to be vulnerable to so broad an audience, but it can potentially hurt us in some ways.

Take this painting for instance. Innocent, right?

Forest Spirit painting featuring cardinal spirit

It’s a magical forest spirit within an enchanted grove. Something born deep within the imagination and given life on the paper, like most art. And yet, sharing this might hurt me.
Not because it’s something controversial or inappropriate, but purely because of the way an algorithm governs our relationship with every content sharing platform, like YouTube and Instagram. When I post this, I must label it correctly. And if that label differs from my usual content, gods help me.
You see, the algorithm loves labels. It needs labels. It needs to organise things into different boxes that dont touch. When I share something outside of my usual box, the algorithm gets confused. It doesn’t know how to promote me or who to show my videos/posts to. (That’s the trouble of being made of 0’s and 1s)
Artists on the other hand are diverse beings with diverse interests. I for one am inspired by nature, but the vastness of nature and all that it inspires cannot be contained within one box – or indeed one label. I am not one type of artist.
I like to share a broader picture of what moves me to create, to translate that feeling of being in a Scottish forest, igniting all the senses, so that no matter where you live in the world you might feel a bit of that peace.

Goauche forest painting by Sarah Burns
Gouache forest painting

In this case, the sudden leap from my usual niche – “gouache landscape tutorials” – to another – “mythical creature watercolor” – is perhaps too much for the algorithm. It doesn’t know how to connect those boxes. And so, the video/post is shown to less people.

Of course, there are always exceptions, which usually happen because something in the video or the art spoke to the viewer on a deeper level regardless of the niche.

And it’s not easy to be fully aware of the consequences and still lack the desire to conform. It’s like walking over hot coals. You have to mentally prepare.

The really successful artists make their fortunes on the back of consistency, and the really really successful artists usually stick to a single niche. Those of us who are very diverse and don’t conform to the algorithm’s demands will struggle to grow an audience, to make as many sales, to be a recognized name for something.

But is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

gouache landscape sketches
Gouache landscape sketches

In my case, that struggle has built up my resilience and determination. I’m proof that you can make a living being a diverse artist sharing all sorts of different things. No I’m not rich in the traditional sense, but I’m rich in spirit and inspiration and drive. Knowing I can pivot between different niches and not lose my audience completely is empowering. My videos or posts may have lower engagement, but that doesn’t make them less valuable. Each step of the journey is important.

I truly believe that sharing the whole picture of my journey – not just perfectly curated parts – will help me grow a more meaningful connection with my audience. I’ve already seen proof of that.

I encourage you to question your choices – what you paint, what you share, why you share. Keep yourself accountable. Social media is a slippery slope. It’s proven that you get a dopamine rush when you share things and people ‘like’ it or give a positive reaction. That is part of the addiction.

Perhaps someday the algorithm will not need to be so black and white. Perhaps it will recognize the need for diversity within niches…how very contrary! Until then, I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I’m doing what I love and sharing every damn bit of it.

Comment below and join the conversation.

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

5 thoughts on “Ignoring the Algorithm and Letting the Magic In (A frank conversation about social media for artists)

  1. I agree with f the algorithm. I get so upset with it. I want to build an audience and develop an art business. I’ll just keep painting my flowers.

  2. Good points! I also do a lot of different kinds of art, but that’s what keeps me motivated. I love teaching art and continue to do so even though I’m now retired from teaching in the public school system. I share my work on IG, mostly because it’s quick and easy and I’m not a techie at all. I totally agree that the really successful artists make it because they stick to a certain medium or style. Ah well, as long as I’m having fun, continuing to learn and can share those skills with my students, then I’m a happy artist. Work that makes it into galleries or is sold is just a plus. Luckily, I don’t need to make a living off of my art.

    1. Yes, I know and I think of the children who always paint and just have fun. Sometimes I see artists who make me think if they have an audience then why can’t I? I try to focus more on what and how I feel then the medium.

  3. As an artist that has a weird sense of security over not having a ‘style’ like others I see online I completely relate to what you’ve written. Art is so diverse and I love exploring niches and being abstract with my animation. There’s few things that give me more of a creative rush than discovering and inventing news to make drawings move. Thank you for putting to words what’s been on my mind!

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