Populist Modernism: Printed Instagram Poetry and the Literary Highbrow

Description (in English): 

“InstaPoets” are a collection of individual Instagrammers who’ve converted their social media capital (hundreds of thousands of followers, millions of “likes” and reposts) into printed book bestseller status. Rupi Kaur alone tallied 1.4 million sales of her first book of Insta Poetry, ​Milk and Honey​, in 2017. Uniquely among books by social media celebrities (​c.f.​books by YouTube celebrities), fans of InstaPoets buy printed book versions of ​exactly the same content​ that’s available for free in an Instagram feed. Why do these fans buy what they already have for free?

This paper describes the Instagram Poetry phenomenon, then situates it in two contexts: debates about high- and lowbrow digital literary culture; and book industry efforts to understand--and monetize--digital interactivity.

Electronic literature artists emulate the high modernist aesthetic of difficulty. Once a small community of North American and Western European academics, e-lit is now global, and its canonical status is established: e-lit is featured on university syllabi, publishes its own curated and peer-reviewed collections, has launched a branch of digital humanities scholarship, and awards prizes. Bestselling InstaPoetry, in this context, is a populist upstart at odds with “digital literature” as it’s been construed. However, the InstaPoets provide clues about how digital literary interactivity might be financially sustainable outside of university sponsorship—a conversation that transpired at ELO 2017 in my talk: “What Book Publishers can Learn from Electronic Literature Installation,” on a panel chaired by Lyle Skains. Later, Leonardo Flores openly asked Matt Kirschenbaum in the QA after his keynote: what is e-lit’s #1 hit? My paper is one response to that question.

Printed Instagram Poetry’s “warm materiality” (McLuhan) converts the social media capital of algorithmic reinscription (likes, shares, reposts) into book sales and bestseller status. This paper analyzes what the Instagram Poets’ social and economic success tell us about new practices of digital-born authorship and e-literature’s financial sustainability.

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Nina Kolovic