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What lies ahead for Instagram?

When Instagram was launched on 6th October 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, little did they know the photo-sharing app would change the cultural fabric of society. Today there are 2 billion monthly active users, 230 million of which are in India, 143 million in the United States and 113 million in Brazil. Instagram has traditionally been the ‘happening’ app where the cool, influential socialites of the world have made a name for themselves, amassing millions upon millions of followers and earning an envious living while doing so. It has propelled people from living regular lives into a life of internet mega stardom, coining the term ‘influencer’, all from the comfort of their mobile phones. In its formative years while Facebook (now Meta) came under fire for privacy and user data mismanagement, Instagram would avoid the media criticism despite being a Facebook-owned property.

But along with its colossal growth has been growing concerns. Bots, fake accounts, spam, cyber bullying, scammers and low emotional wellbeing are synonymous with the Instagram experience. It is regularly placed in the top position for the social media platform that’s worst for your mental health. The history of the Meta-Instagram relationship would have one conclude there has never been much emotional attachment to Instagram by Mark Zuckerberg. It wasn’t his creation. Facebook was (though even that is debatable). Much like Instagram was used as a tool to propel Facebook’s growth in the 2010s, Instagram is being used as a tool with which to compete with TikTok, having introduced the copycat feature Reels in 2020. Despite Instagram’s colossal number of users, society is turning against the app as its harmful effects accumulate.

What lies ahead for Instagram?

It’s a fairly regular occurrence for high growth startups to undergo a pivot at several points in its growth journey. From the days of Burbn that emulated the features of Foursquare, a social check-in app, it changed its name to Instagram and more closely emulated Flickr. A common belief about Instagram’s early success was that it played on the mobile and photography connection. The argument went as follows: Previous photo sharing services were web-based. You took photos on your camera, downloaded them onto your PC, then uploaded them onto the service. Instagram cut all these corners. Launching at the same time that camera quality was getting better, you snapped a photo on your phone and directly uploaded it onto the IG app.

Instagram certainly did cut the number of steps it took to upload photos online and it attempted to play on the spontaneity angle through its name, a portmanteau of ‘instant’ and ‘telegram’. But arguably a stronger factor that attracted millions of users to the app was the quality of photos. What was once Instagram’s competitive advantage, however, became a problem. Soon enough people felt pressure whenever they posted. Is my photo good enough? Do I look pretty enough? Users created WhatsApp groups so they could get feedback on photos before posting them on IG, such was the worry about whether they had met the ever-growing quality standard. Some had private accounts with which they could be themselves and not worry about how they looked to the world, and a public account where every photo was crafted, curated and perfected.

Throughout the years this pressure has intensified, contributing to Instagram’s reputation as an app that’s not particularly favourable to one’s mental health. What lies ahead is likely a greater focus by Meta on relieving that pressure, an opportunity Snapchat attempted to exploit via its ephemeral photo features and more recently, BeReal’s two minute posting window following a notification at a random time once a day. However, as much as attempts are made to control apps whose nature is based on social interactions, these apps often take on a life of their own.

One of these unexpected turns in Instagram has been the the reciprocal nature of user interaction. If I follow you, I’m expecting you to follow me back. If I like your stuff, you should do the right thing and like my stuff. As ‘growth hacking’ became a trend among the entrepreneurial community in the mid-2010s, the reciprocity of Instagram’s user interactions was targeted. One growth hack promised to guaranteed followers. It was the ‘Like, Like, Like, Follow’ strategy. You would find a user, like 3 of their photos and follow them. This would supposedly give them the impression that you had genuinely looked through their profile, were interested in their content and followed them because of that. When it came to getting followers, it sometimes worked. Perhaps 1 in every 10-20 users followed back. But there was a problem. They weren’t following because of your content. They were following just because someone had followed them and had showed interest in their photos. So when the growth hacker posted new content, they’d have thousands of followers but would get no interactions or engagement. In short, the growth hack was useless.

Image and reputation had become interlaced with Instagram’s culture. Some users were wary about following other accounts in case their follow-to-follower ratio became lopsided. You always want to have more people following you than people you follow. Others deleted their accounts out of embarrassment after a bot purge took their follower count from tens of thousands to mere hundreds. Some users reported having stayed on the app longer than they wanted to because of the pressure of liking their friends’ photos. If a friend posts something and you don’t like it within 10 minutes, what kind of friend are you?

The reciprocal nature of Instagram’s interactions remain today as Meta directs Instagram on a new pivot, largely as a result of the emergence of TikTok. In June 2021 Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, clarified the app’s area of focus when he declared in a tweet, “we’re no longer a photo-sharing app or a square photo-sharing app”. Mosseri outlined that Instagram serves to entertain people and he wants it to lean into the current trend. In other words, the TikTok trend.

This shift in focus upset many users, many of whom felt all the major Big Tech apps are blending into one unrecognisable whole:

Stop trying to be like the other apps. Every update is getting worse and worse

Nobody asked for another TikTok. If that’s what we wanted then we would’ve just gotten TikTok. You’ve screwed up your platform and now you’re gonna lose a lot of users.

Wow this is awful. It’s basically going to do what other apps already do and hide what we want to see and who we actually follow? Why would you do this?

Why in the world would you change a product, which basically has the monopoly on image sharing into a second grade TikTok?

It’s no longer a photo-sharing app’ that was the reason I liked Instagram

Social media apps are very much about iterations and pivoting based on user behaviour. Despite vocal pushback, Instagram’s 2 billion-strong user base serves as justification that a priority on video won’t deter people from using the app. However, as large as Instagram’s user base is, not everything is as positive as it seems. Instagram’s user growth has been declining while Snapchat’s has been rising. Trends appear to demonstrate a preference among Gen Z users for TikTok and Snapchat over Instagram. And generally the negative reputation of social media as toxic persists into the 2020s. Uncertainty about Instagram’s future abounds as hype around the metaverse rises and falls and AI becomes the topic of the day, suggesting Meta’s focus may be elsewhere. Big Tech companies can still push their weight, controlling vast resources to squeeze out competitors, exemplified by the announcement of Artifact shutting down, a popular news aggregator app created by the original founders of Instagram. The biggest concern for Instagram now is whether it can continue to be the ‘happening’ app that it was in the 2010s. Facebook lost that position long ago, and the battle ensues as Instagram’s entrenched position comes under threat from more appealing competitors such as TikTok and a resurging Snapchat.

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