How important do you have to be to make the leaders of a massive social network change their minds?
If this week was any indication, it appears all you have to do is be Kylie Jenner and have 360 million followers on Instagram.
TV star and entrepreneur Jenner took to Instagram recently to voice her displeasure with the direction the platform was taking, re-sharing a post that pleaded that the platform “make instagram instagram again.”
When Kim Kardashian joined the fray to echo the same complaints — that Instagram had stopped being a place to just see photos of your friends and instead a place more filled with videos and ads and shopping — Instagram had to act.
First, head of the company Adam Mosseri posted a video on Instagram about the direction it was taking. In it, he detailed that Instagram would essentially continue its march to becoming more like TikTok: more videos, more content from people you don’t follow, and despite assurances, an implicit message that photography just wasn’t important.
Then, after a storm of criticism, Mosseri told journalist Casey Newton that they are pausing the changes, and will continue to experiment.
If one is not a frequent user of the service it can all sound a little arcane or unimportant, but in truth, the kerfuffle is simply the result of a large company again pivoting in the face of competitive threats and market conditions — this time from the explosive of growth of short-form video app, TikTok.
Still, despite the quotidian nature of it all, Instagram’s vacillation is itself reason for pause. If these particular changes aren’t implemented, more inevitably will be, and they will likely keep moving closer to TikTok. Whatever they are, the whole episode serves as a reminder that there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between enjoyable or positive aspects of social media and their monetization.
Put another way, social media wherever it exists is always doomed to become terrible.
That can seem hyperbolic, but now that these kinds of services have been around for some time, it is possible to discern a pattern to their growth.
When they first emerge, there is a flurry of activity, especially among a set of early adopters. Friends pile on, and the initial energy often produces a fascinating, vibrant creativity, producing a unique, novel grammar and culture.
Then the platforms “scale up” — that tech term for amassing tens or hundreds of millions of users. The flood of people changes the nature of the platform. You have to use algorithms to sort through all the content and the mix of so many different types of people increases the amount of conflict. Bad actors use easy loopholes in rules to harass or harm people.
But with all those eyeballs locked onto a new social media site, it’s then time for monetization. Interspersed between posts are ads. Those algorithms now also prioritize content that becomes most “sticky” — that is, keeps people glued to their phone the most. The energetic creativity starts to wane, replaced by a rat race to cut through the noise and keep and monetize an audience.
Then, in their later stages, it becomes clear that the magic has dissipated as some newer, better service comes along.
Yet, part of the change here is an ever-increasing tilt toward more immediate, temporarily satisfying content — in this case, the short-form video on TikTok. There, clips of comedy, dancing, boasting or preening, politics and more occupy one’s attention. Rather than friends, you see instead content the company’s algorithm thinks you might like. Instagram has followed suit putting videos and clips into people’s feeds. This is in fact the crux of people’s complaints about the service.
That mass of content, whether on Instagram or TikTok, is much too large and varied to label it as neatly bad or good.
But what is missing in this algorithmically-driven push is the, well, social dimensions of social media. As one’s feed fills up with content from elsewhere, instead of it forming an ambient awareness of what those you know are doing, it becomes a sort of cut-rate TV, replacing posts from your friends with videos you watch mostly to kill time.
In one sense, this is just market economics at work as the pressures of monetization and competition are brought to bear. Even so, it’s a depressing trajectory, one in which every new, vibrant digital thing seems to slowly change over time to emerge as either a copy of something else, or simply a worse version of itself.
Instagram and its parent company Meta have never been shy about copying from its competitors. Despite having changed their minds, it is almost certain that it will continue to “borrow” features and approaches from other social apps. And for their bottom line, it’s probably the right thing to do.
It doesn’t mean we can’t lament the change, though — perhaps most specifically that the ad-based, private model of social media seems to have a built-in tendency to ruin things.
If only there were some other way to run or fund these platforms. Unlike Kylie Jenner, however, the best most of us can do is cling on to that idle hope.