I've traipsed round to many a gallery in the past, trying to persuade a visibly mortified owner that I might have some interesting paintings to show. But I was not in the club; I had no network of cool artistic types to open doors for me; the traipsing, the cold-calling, the look-at-my-work pleading were always in vain. It held me back from ever believing there was a big enough market for my work. But now I find myself with a daily and ludicrous marvel that so many thousands of people are 'following' me on Instagram. I'm never quite clear why they turned up and, more particularly, why they stick around but it was a very important impulse in the decision to quit my job: a measurable indication that enough people liked what I was doing that enough of them might go all the way and buy some of it.
Winding back two years, when I preferred my media to be distinctly antisocial, I was merely a faithless Facebook user, embarrassed by my confusion with its purpose and complexity. I'd made a few mildly interesting pots by this point, with delicate flickerings of the techniques I have recently been developing in earnest. In the studio, Stine Dulong was developing her ceramics business and suggested I start an Instagram account. Compared to anyone else we knew she had stratospheric numbers of followers for this platform which I'd barely heard of. And I admired her disciplined and focused approach. What appealed instantly to me was just allowing people to interact with your stuff without having to invite them in or give them permission. It was a way of showing what I was up to without any of the interaction that Facebook seemed to demand (I admit to a slightly curmudgeonly streak..). So I posted thirty photos of the best work I could make at the time. And.. and nothing. Not a squeak from the meekest of mice dropping pins in silence. I think Stine took pity and gave me some 'likes' and it dawned on me that I'd once more forgotten the lesson which I keep having to learn: if you want interaction, you have to interact.
So I set about using Instagram for the purest use of which it is capable: finding people doing interesting things. And there are millions of them, certainly enough potters and artists to keep me intrigued. I learned some etiquette early on: liking and commenting on people's work and following them often leads to mutual interest. But when it doesn't it pays not to take it personally! And so over the next six months I made my way up to the giddy height of a thousand followers. Social media followers constitute 'digital capital'. It's a crude guide to the proportion of the population who are interested in you and, indisputably, more followers is better than fewer. So we chase that number upwards, never satisfied, and start to use Instagram for the evilest use of which it is capable: measuring our own worth. I convinced myself I wasn't getting suckered by the dopamine drip of new followers by doing hard-nosed analysis on the figures I was seeing. I measured how quickly interest in any post would tail off, what kinds of posts garnered the most attention, was there a good and bad time to post, what proportion of followers leave again, and on and on.. Then something happened.
For my 105th post I put up a video of writing on a porcelain cup and it 'went viral'. That simple act of making (we were limited to only fifteen-second videos in those days) must have had something very attractive about it: over 1,700 new followers turned up, more than doubling my audience. Watching a human being create something skilfully from scratch is a deeply satisfying experience for another human being. Perhaps we're relieved to note the temporary decrease in entropy: a minute, sentient yell on the irrepressible path to oblivion. Perhaps it's more along the lines of enjoying the movements, tuned absolutely to the laws of nature, affirming our perfect fit in the universe.
And that's how my posts started going.. I found I could express tidbits of fanciful thinking without putting people off. Indeed, the captions to my posts seem to be one of the reasons why someone might follow my account. Instagram turned out to be a proving ground for ideas, as much as the images are a diary of my learning and progress.
But then the haters arrived. One of the effects of a post being popular is that it gets reposted on sites with a great number of followers. In turn, this means that many more people will see it who have never come across my work before. They happen upon a single piece which is just the latest in a line of thousands before it. And they don't get it. And they tell you so. Apparently there are many three-year-olds out there who can do what I do; and I am patently filthy rich, being able to charge millions for one of my vases. There's a satisfyingly contradictory nature to these two claims. I had the mildest form (being a straight, white man) of this contemporary phenomenon but it struck forcefully at first. How does a stranger feel able to be so abusive and what do you do about it? The obvious reaction is to ignore them or to slap them back. But I wondered if there might be more going on: there was a genuine befuddlement in these people. Their crude lashing out might be an attempt to mask their brains' demand to make sense of something which didn't fit their understanding of the truth.. it's easier to attempt to eliminate a contradiction than to solve it. Turning this on myself, I tried an experiment in education. I wrote back each time with a reasoned argument about what I was up to and why, trying to be completely neutral. Upon sifting the results (scientific rigour is my comfort blanket when dealing with the perplexities of people) I was encouraged: one third of them wrote back apologising and engaging, and the rest kept quiet. This wouldn't be a useful tactic for the obscenities that many other people get but it does seem to calm down the pottery-haters (a new phenomenon I am proud to have unearthed).
I recorded all the turbulence of this growth in followers in eight YouTube videos. If you want a geeky overdose in statistics and advice then do check them out.
As a hobbyist, I could wallow in the Instagram mud, being interested or bemused by this or that aspect, but as a professional artist I have to think of it as my shop window. Many people are able to use their large numbers of followers to attract advertising, mentioning their commercial collaborators for a fee. The freedom to post and write what I want keeps me on Instagram, so I don't think I'll be sitting at the pottery wheel in a Prada coat anytime soon. (Sometimes virtue signalling coincides with what you actually feel!) However, I am not posting pictures of my cat eating cupcakes on holiday. People have stuck around because they can see my development. They have given me commissions for new work, I have run a couple of successful Instagram auctions, and most of the visitors to my occasional online shop are followers. I'm sure I'd be able to exploit my quasi-instafame much more efficiently if I had a marketing head and a soul for selling, but I'm naturally more woolly than that. I'm happy for its meaning to gradually unfurl.
Instagram, like so many web-based tools, circumvents the usual way of doing things and breaks many assumptions about what's allowed and what isn't, especially in a realm as opaque and highly strung as the art world. Using these tools, people (and a great many of them) can like or dislike one's work based on what they can see, rather than what they've been told. Which means it's so much easier to respect their decision or to engage directly with them when you can't.
My conundrum is that hardly any of my followers (one in five thousand) have felt able to buy my work so far. I suspect whoever does want to own a piece of mine will either not have heard of Instagram or consider it irrelevant to the value of my work. But the huge amount of goodwill I've received over the last two years has convinced me that person is out there.