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Column: New Instagram feature corrects appropriation of Black influencers


DTH photo illustration. A person takes a selfie on their phone. 

Earlier this month, Instagram announced the launch of enhanced tags, a new feature that makes it easier for creators to receive credit for their work. This feature rightfully emerges at a time when content theft and cultural appropriation are topics of debate across social media platforms — especially for Black and other non-white creators. Instagram’s new feature attempts to correct this practice through fair citation. 

“Enhanced tags allow a creator’s self-designated profile category on their professional accounts to be displayed in their People Tag, so that people can share and view a creator's specific contribution to a photo or video post,” the press release said. 

Through this simple process, tagged users can be identified by their occupation — and others who engage with the post will be directed to everyone involved. 

The issue of giving creators credit became a point of controversy last year on TikTok, the video app owned by Bytedance that has enjoyed skyrocketing popularity over the last two years. 

In July 2021, Black creators staged a strike on the app, refusing to make a dance for a song by rapper Megan Thee Stallion who has had other songs go viral. Instead of creating a new dance trend for it, users abstained, using #BlackTikTokStrike to voice their frustration with non-Black influencers gaining popularity and financial opportunities by using their work without proper credit. 

The most infamous case of content theft on the app occurred to Jalaiah Harmon, whose dance, the Renegade – one of the most viral dances of 2020 – enjoyed immense popularity without her getting credit for it. Instead, popular white influencers Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio were heavily associated with the dance and were invited to public events to perform it. 

Harmon was unable to cash in on the popularity of her own creativity, despite the effort to give her credit after the fact. This is the kind of treatment that Black creators protested. 

It’s these practices of content theft that the feature was designed to correct. Data analyst Alexis Michelle Adjei and engineer Cameryn Boyd are the two Black women that created the feature. In an interview, they identify addressing inequity Black creators face as a priority in developing it. 

They cite a 2021 report which found a 29 percent pay gap between white creators and all creators of color. That percentage grows to 35 percent between Black and white creators. 

As the influencer industry expands, so does the money and opportunity to create content full-time. 

D’Amelio and Rae were ranked at the top of Forbes list of the highest-paid Tik Tokers last year, making $17.5 million and $8.5 million respectively. Between the two of them, there are numerous advertising sponsorships, a reality show, a lead role in a movie and an invitation to the 2021 Met Gala. 

Though Harmon’s dance greatly contributed to their ability to land these lucrative deals, she has not experienced any of the same opportunities to grow a career. None of the top earners listed were Black. 

Kiara Childs, a UNC doctoral candidate studying the intersection of beauty culture and Black women’s digital culture across digital media platforms, had mixed thoughts about the context of the new feature and its potential impact. 

While Childs agrees that the feature will be helpful for content like dance trends and for those working behind the scenes as photographers, stylists and more, it’s difficult to determine how expansive its reach will be “because appropriation is normalized by not only platforms like Instagram, but the influencer economy around it.” 

This includes streaming platforms, late-night shows, and other cultural institutions that choose influencers to represent their brand and give white influencers more visibility, Childs said. 

“I hope this encourages more established influencers to credit who they extract from," she said. "But I am worried that because it is profitable to appropriate, this may become a useless feature.”

Though the feature has the potential to change the everyday practices of granting credit, it's just a start to challenging a general societal trend that has an appetite for Black content and culture, but only when it’s performed by white and white-passing people. 

Credit on Instagram is great, but should exist in tandem with equal access to opportunities outside of social media where Black creators can establish their careers. For this to happen, cultural institutions and advertisers need to look beyond white influencers for talent. 

Another limitation of the feature is the fact that it can only be used by business and creator accounts – users have to fall into pre-designated categories to take advantage of it. For those like Jalaiah who stumbled into virality, though she also trained as a dancer, the enhanced tag wouldn’t work for them. 

Being an established influencer, reinforced by outside opportunities like sponsorships and media appearances, makes it easier to be identified and tagged. Because users need a professional account, largely unknown creators of trends can still remain uncredited. 

Instagram’s new enhanced tags will begin to encourage us to think about whose creative work is involved in the content we engage with every day. If anything, it forces us to recognize the work that creators put in and can allow them to be adequately paid and acknowledged, especially non-white ones that face inequities. 

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I hope other social platforms take note and that fair crediting is implemented across the board. 

@_zarialyssa |