In my corner of the internet, the big topic of the week has been: Instagram. To be more precise, its gradual decline in both quality and relevance.
First there was Om Malik, pronouncing Instagram “dead”:
Okay, I didn’t mean to be so dramatic. Or use a clickbait headline, but in reality, what used to be Instagram is now dead.
He goes on to describe a network that once inspired him (and others!) before it was “subsumed” by Facebook:
What’s left is a constantly mutating product that copies features from “whomever is popular now” service — Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever. It is all about marketing and selling substandard products and mediocre services by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper.
Malik focuses on Instagram’s embrace of shopping features, which dovetails nicely with the latest piece of Kyle Chayka on the New Yorker on “Algorithmic Anxiety”. Chayka notes that people increasingly find that social networks recommend them products and content that are, at best, rough approximations of their taste.
Many complained that algorithmic recommendations seemed to crudely simplify their tastes, offering “worse versions of things I like that have certain superficial similarities,” as one person put it.
This is one of the main points of criticism I’ve read (and noticed!) about Instagram: That the shift away from photography went hand in hand with an increase of advertisement and content recommendations, all of which seem random at best, downright insulting at worst, and often pushy in their insistence. These days, when I google a certain product category, I’m inundated with advertisements of the same thing on Instagram. When I like a post, I get the exact same thing recommended to me again. The relevance of posts from people I either knew or liked for their content was replaced with and overabundance of ads and reels.
Now, there’s something to make the feed still worse: “discovery.” That’s when a bunch of videos from people you don’t follow get shoehorned into your feed. That’s where we are now with Instagram. The people who I have made an effort to follow — the people whose posts I most want to see — are getting de-ranked for strangers’ videos.
Most social networks, however dominant in their day, die at some point. I’ve certainly been online long enough to see it happen a few times. But with Instagram, there’s a notable sense of anguish about that nosedive, as though we were being robbed of the platform it could be (and once was). There was something about Instagram that made it more than popular, it gave people that rare sense that it was also theirs. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the app, the limit of formats (photos, squares), the easy way to understand it (just a feed).
Update: An article I missed, from Vice Magazine, called “Instagram Sucks Now, Sorry”, makes a good point:
OG fans would argue it went downhill a few years after it was sold to Facebook, now Meta, in 2012 (and after everyone migrated there from Tumblr). But many of us have had years of entertainment on the app since then. (…) I really used to like you, Instagram. You were the chicer cousin of Facebook — which everyone left when the MLM huns, racist boomers and conspiracy theorists took over.
Yesterday, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, made another post about the state of the app and about how the pivot to video was final, irreversible, what people wanted. (Again, the fact that he has to justify it at all shows how much people care.) With the logic of all changes being maximum engagement, there’s a fair chance Instagram is slowly becoming a portable television for the 21st century.