Happy 12th birthday Instagram, but the party’s over
Cast your mind back to 2010.
Lady Gaga wore the infamous ‘meat dress’, the X-Factor created One Direction and the only reason anybody had heard of ‘TikTok’ was the because of popstar Kesha’s debut single. It was also a big year in the social media world—Instagram launched on the IOS app store in the October.
I joined Instagram exactly two years later in October 2012, when it was really beginning to embed itself in millennial culture thanks to a release on all smart phone app stores in April 2012. It was a simpler time on the app. Anyone using it pre 2013 will remember the joy of the (non-optional) chronological feed, the filter choices (Valencia, anyone?) and the unrivalled rush of 10 likes tipping over to 11, showing ’11 likes’ rather than individual usernames instead.
WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE.
The app, which was created by founder Kevin Systrom due to his love of photography, thrived because it focused on just that. Square photos only—not an ad or a Reel in sight.
Of course, things change.
And innovation should always be welcomed, or apps will cease to exist otherwise (RIP Vine). Instagram introduced some new – and really decent - features such as short videos, photo tagging and direct messaging in 2013 (can you imagine a world where the phrase “slide into your DMs” didn’t exist!?) which all marked a shift in intent for the app.
The Instagram team quickly clocked on to the fact they needed to connect and engage users beyond their isolated images. Things were going well. The biggest gamechanger (although we must ask ourselves, is it really innovation if it’s stolen from another app?) was Stories—and in my opinion, the smartest move of all.
By the time Stories arrived, Instagram had lost its authenticity.
Somewhere between the heady and carefree, casual days of 2012, and the introduction of Stories in 2016, was a shift to the ‘Instagram vs Reality’ mindset that we’re now all too familiar with. I’d pinpoint it to November 2013 precisely, when Instagram fashioned itself into a new advertising platform through the introduction of sponsored posts, thus introducing the concept of influencers to the world.
Things quickly began to change, and not for the better.
Sepia tinted photos of a coffee, your lunch or a pet gave way to a polished quest for perfection.
There was a sudden prerequisite that photos had to be super glamourous, and there was an unspoken rule that the photo had to be perfect – taken in the right lighting, showing off a cool experience, an expensive product or a heavily filtered selfie.
Casual coffee shots were no longer welcome, unless it had fancy latte art and was served in an aesthetically pleasing cup. For far too many people than I think would care to admit, ‘doing it for the ‘gram’ became not just a phrase, but a genuine way of life.
I’m a huge travel fan outside of work – it’s my passion – and the amount of people that I’ve witnessed visiting places just for the photo opp rather than the experience is heart-breaking. You only need to go to a gig to realise that at least 90% of people tragically enjoy the experience through the screen of their phones, rather than with their own eyes. All of this behaviour helped shape the Instagram narrative that life is always exciting, always perfect – which we all know, isn’t the reality at all.
Instagram’s introduction of Stories elevated the app to levels not seen before, attracting more than 400 million daily users and reinventing how users shared content.
To this day, the investment and innovation around Stories continues. Just last week they introduced 60 second Stories, a welcome move for users and brands alike.
But for all the good features that make the app a popular one – and let’s keep it real here, positively received announcements like last week’s have been few and far between - in recent years there has been a slew of unpopular features announced too.
Beyond just being disliked by users, these new features are actively putting them off the app.
Instagram is undoubtedly guilty of introducing too much. Its USP was sharing photos and videos with family, friends and followers. Now, a confusing home feed, WAY too much sponsored and suggested content and a relentless focus on Reels has made the app a pretty painful place to be. Only yesterday I scrolled through ten posts on my own IG feed and tracked the content type. Of those ten posts, four were ads while three were suggested posts.
Spot the problem?
The unparalleled rise of TikTok has become an itch that Instagram simply just can’t scratch.
Ironically, the more Instagram tries to copy the powerhouse, the more it loses every part of its own identity that made it popular in the first place.
Now that it has stopped prioritising photos, what’s the point?
If users want short form content to entertain, they’ll open TikTok. If they want to sit down for a viewing marathon, they’ll head to YouTube. Stories are still thriving over on Snapchat too, so where’s the USP?
The more Instagram focuses on brands and creators – and therefore optimises its algorithm to that content – the bigger the risk that users will log out. Indeed, in 2021 Instagram engagement rates dropped by 25%.
The world of social media never sleeps; new apps like BeReal are growing in success – no doubt because of its reminder of a simpler, more authentic time on social media – a trend seeing a major resurgence at the moment. Social media users can be fickle- they are (rightly) loyal to what serves their needs, not the app itself. Instagram needs to have a real think about how it wants to position itself moving forward – and who it exists for.
Over a billion people still use the app so it’s hardly like the app is about to disappear overnight, but a lot of people – me included – feel that Instagram just isn’t very fun anymore. Sure, it’s 12 this year, which is a great achievement, but if the steady decline in user session time and engagement continues, it might not have many more big birthday parties to celebrate.
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