Telling stories on Instagram: A Q&A with Neil Shea

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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Neil Shea, a contributing editor for The American Scholar and The Virginia Quarterly, is also a writer who has worked for National Geographic for more than 15 years, a role that has continued to evolve as he has focused on becoming an Instagram storyteller.

Being a pioneer in digital storytelling and the first writer to adapt narrative techniques to NatGeo’s Instagram feed, Shea has developed immensely popular feeds, accumulating more than 65,000 followers since 2014. Shea spoke with Storybench about his journey with Instagram storytelling, his experience as a journalist, and his evolving understanding of social media strategies.

You started your Instagram back in 2014 because your editor urged you to. Did you want to do it in the first place? How have your attitudes toward the platform changed over the last six years?  

No, I was reluctant. I wasn’t sure of its value. And I had not been on Instagram, and I aborted Twitter. I wasn’t sure if it would be an interesting place to do anything with storytelling. But it turned out to be a wonderful place to do things.

It started out as an experiment, and then it became something a little bit more involved. I came to be really interested in the art of it. I loved it a lot. There was a lot of responses to it, and then it started to become too much work. It started to become – I think social media does for a lot of people – something like a burden. A lot of people experience social media as this thing that’s fun at first and then becomes a burden. For me, it became something I was spending a lot of energy on. It was a sideline of my main work. So right now, I do it far less than I used to. It’s still something that is important to me, but I’m not as involved as I used to be.

Did you have any expectations when first setting up your account?

No, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I knew enough about Instagram to know that people were very interested at that early phase in the platform, posting food and selfies and cats. I think I probably didn’t have a very high opinion of what Instagram was.  

I was looking at your website where you said that Instagram storytelling strips down the journalism techniques. In what way?

Because it’s such a small space, you have to make it smaller, you have to edit yourself much more aggressively. You don’t have the space to run on and on and on that you might have done in a longer form.

What are the strengths of Instagram storytelling compared to traditional journalism? 

Instagram storytelling is all about trying to catch people in the screen of their daily lives. And give them a moment of an unexpected wonder or confusion even, just a moment that fits into their busy day, and takes them somewhere else to a place or an idea or to a person. That’s the power. And because it’s so focused and so just still, it doesn’t need to do the same kind of work that a newspaper story does or a magazine. So, you can just concentrate on something beautiful, something concentrated.

What is the biggest challenge in this form of storytelling? And have you ever had any concerns that the platform would degrade the journalistic elements within your stories?

Well, there’s the writing. It always takes more time than you think it’s going to. The question makes you need to ask, “why are you doing this?” And if you are hoping that somehow Instagram writing this kind becomes sort of replacement for a normal job, it’s probably never going to do that. It can add to the work you already do, or you enjoy it. You work for a newspaper or magazine that’s willing to let you do this as well, then that’s great. It adds a new dimension to journalism, but I don’t think anybody is going to be able to make a living as an Instagram journalist.

I have heard people say that from time to time. It’s never something I worried about because, honestly, if you are looking to Instagram to be your news, that’s a problem. I think it’s interesting because you are telling stories, but they are in there with the selfies and cats and Kardashians. So, it’s all mixed together. That’s part of the beauty of it. But thus, you can get lost.

What kind of story is worth an Instagram post?

Almost anything can. Lots of subjects can make great Instagram posts. Sometimes the photograph that you choose is almost just an illustration, and it gives you the room to go and tell the story about whatever. There are some stories I tell that are very related to the work I’m doing for National Geographic. And then there are other stories that are just ideas that come to me when I was thinking about something, and then I decided I want to write a little essay about it. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be about news or about big events that are happening in the country.

What are your favorite posts?

That’s an interesting question. I mean I go back to my posts sometimes. I have ones that I wish I had written differently, and I have ones that I think are still pretty strong. I like some of the ones that I have been doing lately from the Arctic. I did a series about wolves. I like those.

You have 65,800 followers. How many followers did you have when you first set up?

It goes up and down. Six months ago, I had more than that. It goes down and up depending on what’s happening and who I’m working with and all kinds of weird things. I’m not a company. What can I really tell except that people are coming or going, and who knows why. There are other photographers I know, they can tell you, “If I post a black and white picture, I’m going to lose a thousand followers. And if I post a pretty color picture of an animal, I’ll gain a thousand followers back.” So, they know what their followers are doing.

Do the numbers matter to you?

They did. They used to mean more. When I first got into this I didn’t have any expectations, but then when I started to build an audience and you start to develop expectations like “Wow, I have followers. People like this. I want more.” So, I wanted more. (The numbers) meant a lot to me at the time. Then I started to realize, what am I doing? What is this? Why do I want them? And then I just got too busy to do Instagram all the time. So I sort of got over it. I still don’t like it when I notice the number has gone down.

There’s a weird correlation that I had, that the total number of followers I have has gone down, but the average number of likes on a single post has gone up. What that suggested to me is that maybe there’s 5,000 fewer people following me now than there were two years ago. But more of those people are, what I would call them, dedicated readers. So, I’ve got a dedicated readership. That’s interesting.

Could you explain a bit more about the “dedicated readership?”

There is a dedicated group of people out there who want to read posts that I write. So, they follow me. That group of people is slowly increasing. If you are a Justin Bieber fan, he used to be the biggest thing in the world, and now he’s less popular than he used to be but there will always be some hardcore Justin Bieber fans out there. This is a terrible way to describe it. Let me try to simplify it: As my overall followers fluctuate, the number of individual likes on each story has increased. 

Do you pay close attention to timing when posting a story?

Not anymore. I used to fool around with what might be the effective day to post, what might be the effective image to use, what might be the effective way to begin a story with how to catch people’s attention. That used to matter more before Instagram changed its algorithms and before Instagram became celebrity dominated. I don’t think the strategies of individual journalists like me have much to do with how Instagram works anymore.

In terms of content selection, do you tend to do the kind of stories that would appeal to more audiences or the ones you really like?

I try to do both. If the idea is just something that I’m sitting at home alone thinking about, and if I ask my wife about it, and she’s like, “I don’t care about that,” that’s probably a good sign that a lot of people won’t either. You have to think of your audience when you are writing. I do try to think of ways to engage people who are reading. If one of the questions I’m thinking about now is: When you grow up as a kid you like to play in the woods, at least where I grew up. The woods where I grew up were totally empty of animals. There were just no animals in there. Why is that? And I remember thinking about that when I was a child, but it sort of seemed normal. But now when I’m an adult, I’m in the woods and it’s empty, it’s silent, and what you realize that it’s 200 years of capitalism that has killed all the animals that used to live in the woods. I’m interested in writing that in my Instagram, and how do I take that out of my super nerdy level and talk about that to people who didn’t necessarily care about the woods when they were kids like I did? I used to teach at BU right down the street — wolves used to live right there. That’s kind of interesting. So if you think about what used to be in that spot before white people got to the new world, it becomes an interesting discussion. Maybe something that Instagram readers all over the world will be curious about because if they came from Australia, Africa or London or whatever, they could sort of put that in their own context.

How do you respond to readers’ comments? How do you maintain interaction with followers?

I try to interact with everybody who leaves a comment. I try to either like their comment or respond to their comment or at least go to their page and check out what they are doing. If anybody asks questions, I will answer it. I try to at least engage that way.

Tay Xu studies journalism at Northeastern University.

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