A woman holds her phone up in front of her face, displaying a short poem in Norwegian.
Poetry on Instagram has become increasingly popular and follows the logic of the platform. The poetry which get most likes and followers becomes more visible.

Instagram has popularised poetry, but are the poems any good?

In particular, there is one reason why Instagram poems often lack some of the literary quality of other poetry, according to a professor of literature at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“In a relatively short period of time, Instagram poems have become a popular form of poetry, and diversity in poetry is a good thing. But it is also important to be aware of the limitations of Instagram poems,” Hans Kristian Strandstuen Rustad says.

He is a researcher and professor of Nordic literature at the University of Oslo.

Recently, he has conducted research into Instagram poems, which most often are brief, easy-to-read texts, often combined with a picture or illustration. His research explored how the nature of the publishing platform affects and shapes the poems that are published on it.

“It is obvious that the way in which Instagram works places some limitations on the quality and diversity of Instagram poems,” Rustad says.

Setting the scene for a popularity contest

In recent years, publishing poems via Instagram has become increasingly popular.

The hashtag #instapoetry, for example, has nearly 5.3 million posts on the platform. One of the most famous Instagram poets, Canadian Rupi Kaur, has 4.5 million followers.

“The important thing to understand is that Instagram is not a neutral medium. The platform affects what the poems are about, how they are designed and how they are distributed,” Rustad says.

The explanation for this is as follows: Instagram is programmed to reward those with the greatest number of followers and likes. Those with the most likes are the ones whose content spreads the furthest, Rustad writes in his academic text Instagramdikt og plattformlogikk (Instagram Poems and Platform Logic).

“This mechanism also applies to Instagram poetry and this is something the poets need to deal with,” the professor says.

More of what people want

He adds that poets therefore appear to strive to write poems that are formally or thematically similar to the type of poems that have previously received large amounts of likes, shares and comments. This makes the poems more uniform.

“If you want to be an Instagram poet with a high number of followers, you need to write poems that work on the platform. This means that there is little room for experimentation in terms of topics, content and form. So you could, in many ways, say that Instagram hinders diversity and innovation,” Rustad explains.

Smiling male researcher outside in the snow.
Hans Kristian Strandstuen Rustad is a professor in literature at the University of Oslo, and has done research on Instagram poetry.

Exploiting usage patterns and information about readers

According to the researcher, another interesting factor is that Instagram poets can take calculated and purposeful steps to gain more readers. More readers can lead to increased market value, greater earnings, and better opportunities to have their poems published at a literary publisher.

“This certainly requires an understanding of the nature of the platform, but if you have such an understanding, you can exploit it for personal gain,” he says.

An Instagram poet could, for example, create a business profile on Instagram where they receive useful information about readers and their usage patterns, popular trends and the hashtags that attract the most readers.

“Using this information, poets can finely tune the literary form, and they can time the best moment for publishing their poems. Instagram poems are therefore not only a product of the poet, they are also a result of the medium on which they are published, and the readers,” he explains.

At the same time, Rustad notes that algorithms, trends, and market-oriented thinking apply not only to poems published via social media, but that literary publishers also operate using such models.

But the difference, according to him, is that the processes are much quicker on Instagram, and much of the process takes place on a micro level not accessible for most readers, but where the author receives immediate feedback on whether a poem is popular or not.

Must provide instant gratification

The fact that Instagram poems are often about emotions, identity, otherness, or other universal everyday topics is no coincidence, according to the researcher. It has to do with Instagram poetry being a utilitarian form of poetry that provides instant gratification.

The stream of images, hashtags, algorithms, reading situation, and the quick reading format encouraged by Instagram require poems that you do not need to dwell on, that do not have to be read multiple times to be understood, he explains.

“The simple messages of the poems enable most people to understand, like, and share the poems immediately before moving on to something else. This is probably one of the reasons why they have become popular, also for people who do not normally read poetry,” Rustad says.

A question of quality

Rustad believes that this is one important reason why Instagram poems lack some of the literary quality that is often found in other print poetry.

Instagram does not allow for complex and ambiguous poems where you can discover new aspects of the poem every time you read it.

He considers this to be a bit of a shame, especially if you only read this type of poetry and opt out of reading other poetry because it is too challenging.

“You end up missing out on the diversity and the beautiful, unique texts featuring rhythm, musicality and a deeper message,” he says, and stresses that it doesn’t hurt us to read texts that we need to take the time to digest, texts we need to read over and over again to understand.

He also thinks it is a little sad if people believe that Instagram poems are all poetry has to offer.

“There is so much more than that and that is something we need to be aware of,” he says.

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