Rivers of Entertainment

July 13, 2022 Instagram Meta TikTok

A couple of weeks ago, Bloomberg published an article called Mark Zuckerberg Is Blowing Up Instagram to Try and Catch TikTok”. The article’s gist is that the higher-ups at Meta see short-form clips à la TikTok as the only way forward to fend off the competition. For that reason, they’ve decided to aggressively promote Reels, their new video format on Instagram:

Reels now appear in every Instagram user’s feed. Once someone clicks on a Reel, they’re suddenly in a full-screen mode where swiping up or down only gets you to more Reels. This design tweak can be jarring, like turning a corner in a quiet art gallery and finding yourself in the middle of a dance party.

At first impression, it seems counter-intuitive that Meta would leverage Instagram to make a high-stakes bet like that. Instagram is arguably the company’s crown jewel and most relevant network. On the other hand, it makes sense to go all-in on the biggest platform, not least because the same strategy has worked before: Five years ago, when then-Facebook felt threatened by Snapchat’s Stories, they shoved a copycat format into Instagram and turned it into a runaway success.

The article goes on:

Instagram became a generation’s go-to social app on the strength of its filtered, aspirational lifestyle photography. Now the company is actively killing that identity in the name of beating TikTok, and it might not even work.

There’s a persistent idea that Instagram’s filter aesthetic is what made it today, but I feel like there’s some narrative black hole at work there. The filters were never particularly good, designed mostly to mask the low quality of smartphone cameras at the time. What Instagram did well was to push for mobile photography at the time when nobody was taking it seriously, and thereby captured a whole new audience of people who had never previously thought of themselves as photographers.

Instagram became popular because of its immediacy, because it was the most low-friction way to share moments. Quickly, this had the effect that people began curating these moments to a level of perfectiont that made the stakes of posting a picture ever higher—aspirational lifestyle photography. Stories came at the perfect moment to stave off that trends, affording everyone, once more, a low-pressure way to share.

Photographers (myself included) love to complain that Instagram has lost its initial spirit as a photo-sharing app, but the truth is that the platform has long outgrown that purpose. In 2021, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, explained that the team thinks about Instagram as a conduit for entertainment:

(…) we’re no longer (…) a square photo sharing app. The number one reason people say they use Instagram in research is to be entertained. So people are looking at us for that. (…) We’re trying to lean into that trend — into entertainment and into video.

Reels are a direct outcome of where Instagram is leaning—but the question is if that’s going to work. The app that was once simple to understand is now a hodgepodge or formats (Posts! Stories! Reels!), with loads of ads appearing between either one of them. There is no more straightforward way of even consuming it, and using Instagram feels more and more like diving into boundless rivers of entertainment—but not the good kind. Where TikTok is excelling is by showing people relevant content1, whereas the results of Instagram’s algorithm seem random at its best, like channelsurfing at its worst.

Twitter user @VeneziaFC_EN summed the change up in the best way: Now (…) Instagram is just a roulette wheel of suggested posts that nobody asked for.”

  1. From the article: TikTok delivers a level of algorithmic magic that’s a step beyond, introducing people to stuff they had no idea they would be entertained by (…).”↩︎

Links here: Why 1984 Won’t Be Like 1984

Next: Visual Heritage

Previous: Willful Forgetting

Imprint   Hand-made since 2002