What Success Looks Like
An artist friend of mine recently admitted to me that he had deleted his Instagram account because it was making him insecure about his own work. Every minute he spent scrolling through the daily accomplishments of others left him more certain he could never keep up. It was crazy for me to hear, not because I wasn’t growing that exact same nauseous seed of perceived inadequacy in my own stomach, but because he is one of the most productive artists I know. To look at his incredible output alone would induce that queasy sentiment in any other artist, even before the deluge of hundreds of artists each posting even once a week.
All mirrors are, to a greater or lesser extent, distortionary, but Instagram makes for particularly uneasy viewing lately, as both a reflection of and a sculptor of contemporary visual culture.
I recently saw a television ad promoting tourism to a state that was made to look like a bunch of women you went to high school with but are unusually attractive now all happen to be doing fun things in the same state and are posting about it on their Instagram Stories. It was a pretty effective ad in that it showcased multiple attractions very quickly, and might have even felt genuine… if I could have forgotten that I was watching TV. Seeing Instagram content on a large, horizontal screen that I was not holding felt immediately off, and cast a weird glow on both Instagram and advertising. Because that is what is increasingly uncomfortable about Instagram; everyone is selling you on something all the time. Your friends are selling you on the idea of their life, the products they use and the trips they go on and the restaurants they visit are all the happy recipients of a lot of free publicity.
It’s a little more palatable when people you actually know at least in passing are selling you on the amazing things they’re making, but distorted further by their posts being jumbled up with all the impossibly slick accounts of teams of people posting impossibly chic knickknacks that marry form and function inside a space you want to crawl up into and die inside. Our gut, visceral reaction is that it is grotesque what capitalism has done to our relationships, but the subconscious, deeper-than-bone feeling is still a certainty that we as individuals are somehow not keeping up.
I keep coming back to this idea: What does success look like? Because in school, it was pretty easy to see it. Some kids were successful at sports, others at music, others academically. But some kids were most successful socially. And success in that realm had a different kind of currency, one that wasn’t so binary as grades or making a team. Social success was desirable, and everyone knew who had it, and it helped those who had it in a variety of complex, intertwined ways that was impossible to quantify. Popularity was an early window into how the adult world works, an outside residue on the machine of school through which we extrude our children like fresh pasta.
Metrics are an attempt to quantify popularity. But they are a bad indicator of success. It doesn’t just fail in the sense that what is popular is not always best; it fails on its own terms. Because the truth is that even the most “popular” posts are being manipulated to appear that way through a variety of paid and unpaid strategies, and so metrics can’t even reliably show us what people genuinely like. They don’t measure who really wanted to see your content in the first place. They don’t capture how people truly felt when they saw it. And they feed on the effect that the most popular kids at your high school learned early (wittingly, or otherwise) to manipulate: that people like to feel like part of a group. They want to like what other people like, and dislike what those around them dislike. If you’re able to appear popular, likes stick to likes. Doesn’t it feel like a risk, somehow, to be the first person to like a post? Doesn’t it feel both pointless and somehow oddly comforting to like a post that already has upwards 20K likes?
So if our goal as people, and particularly as artists, shouldn’t be metrics, what should it be? And how do you measure yourself against your new criteria for success? Does success look like money? Does it look like number of sales? Sales to the “right” people? Does success look like your ability, with your work or with your persona, to start a conversation? Does success as an artist mean that your work has changed a life, that you have made some sort of “lasting impact” on someone? On many someones? How would you even go about measuring impact?
In lieu of great, how might we be good?