ICYMI: Instagram faced a major backlash last week after users said that recent updates made the app too much like TikTok. Of course, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future of social products, I have a lot of thoughts on what actually went down.
Frankly, I think the word “social” in “social networks” has always deceived us on Instagram. How is watching your friends (or strangers) go on vacation while sitting alone a “social” behavior? At the same time, there’s a specific type of joy that comes from ‘stalking’ old friends or partners on social media. And while ‘stalking’ is a very antisocial word — and illegal in the real world — what we’re really doing is people watching. IRL, people-watching is fun — you can watch the world go by, clocking familiar faces in your neighborhood and eavesdropping on fleeting conversations, perhaps imagining fake lives for passers by, all while you sip an iced coffee. So why does it feel…worse on Instagram?
As casual photo sharing has shifted more towards DMs and Stories, our Instagram feeds feel less like watching interesting people we know/like pass us by and more like a randomized content discovery tool of irrelevant information. Adam Mosseri, the Head of Instagram, actually said in a recent interview, “We think that creators’ public content can connect you to friends. [Your] Feed could be, and to some degree is, a place to discover things to talk about with your friends.” While this is certainly true, from my perspective, the shift from photo sharing in Feed to DMs and Stories is a product failure. It is a result of the platform becoming performative above all else.
Hot take: I don’t think our collective beef with Instagram comes from having a problem with the format of content on the app (video vs. photo). Instead, I think we’re struggling with the changes to the networks we’re now being exposed to. The traditional “network” on Instagram looked like this: People (friends, celebrities, influencers) and things (brands and organizations) that you’re familiar with. You bought into these accounts when you physically clicked the button to follow them, opting to engage with messages and content they posted. You — the viewer — felt in control of your experience on Instagram. Your “personal” relationship to these accounts made the media they shared interesting, even if it wasn’t top-notch in quality. TikTok, by contrast, gives you access to a completely different network. TikTok prioritizes high-quality, entertaining media vs. your “social” relationship with the people you follow. As a result, content on TikTok needs to be especially entertaining (or informative) because it’s being produced by a relative stranger that you’re not inherently interested in. Or as Nathan Baschez, the co-founder of Every, put it — “relationships are secondary” on TikTok.
I was talking about this with a friend over dinner on Sunday, and he made the point that the reason people love TikTok so much is that it might be the best content personalization engine in the world. They measure literally e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g that you do in order to perfectly surface interesting or entertaining content before you know you want it. Technologically, this is pretty epic. But it’s only possible at the cost of their user’s privacy. We actually think a lot about “network” at Diem. Ultimately, you will come to Diem to discover knowledge from people you don’t know, as you’re utilizing our product to search for and learn from informative conversations beyond the ones available to you in your immediate network. At the same time, we think it’s important that Diemers see the content on the platform as “familiar” in order to comfortably participate in a conversation with relative strangers. The goal: TikTok’s personalization engine married with the “familiar” of Instagram’s curated network (but way less toxic, promise). To that end, I feel that the recent backlash against Instagram actually stems from the company trying to edit its “network.” It’s also worth noting that there’s an entirely different problem at play when it comes to the impact that the recent changes at Instagram cause for creators and their discoverability, but we’ll have to touch on that another day.
This change has proved especially annoying for the non-TikTok native, millennial folk. Millennials have been sharing digital life updates with each other since high school (or before) and many people feel Instagram’s steady evolution to become literally every other social platform has taken that form of sharing away. Some of these folks have said they don’t have anywhere to go now to incessantly share life updates, a behavior that Instagram’s parent company taught us to do when we were teenagers. Are we just being nostalgic in the same way we’re still obsessed with Friends, or do we really want to do this? One of the reasons we liked Instagram as an initial alternative to Facebook was that it focused entirely on our favourite feature from Facebook (photo sharing), and it allowed us to easily discover (and observe) more people. It provided an insider’s view into the lives of celebrities and your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. So surely, if done right, the discovery of more, recommended people shouldn’t feel that annoying to us? It wouldn’t if the product delivered these recommendations really, really well.
I do believe it’s valid to feel betrayed when your favourite apps change. But for the sake of a debate, let’s say (per the above) we don’t actually care about the change from photos to videos or the change in the network because, ultimately, both of these feature changes should be delivering two things we’ve demonstrated we like: interesting content and access to more people. Perhaps we are actually just seeking respite from internet burnout after 2+ years of living behind our screens? Maybe it’s the thought of Instagram making their product as addictive as the most addictive product ever made (aka TikTok) and that’s all just too overwhelming for us? Would we prefer, perhaps, more niche platforms that encourage us to deep dive into our interests, find likeminded people and not be sucked into an algorithm that physically keeps us away from the real world? Maybe we don’t actually care that we’re not seeing friends’ photos anymore, but instead we’re nostalgic that the snapshots of our European summer vacations are no longer receiving the requisite likes? Is this an Instagram problem, or rather, an actual social problem?
Everything on the internet changes. The way we communicate, socialize, and discover shifts all the time, faster than ever before. At the end of the day, being nostalgic for the way we used to post to Instagram is a) pretty trivial and b) kind of like being nostalgic for the act of renting a video at Blockbuster. Just like Blockbuster gave way to Netflix and magazines shed print divisions in favor of digital — this change is really just the social platform equivalent. It just feels different because we are still in the earliest era of the social internet. We’re not yet familiar with strategy changes when it comes to massive social media companies because they’ve only been here for a decade, not a century. And because we don’t buy products from them (like magazines or videos), we also struggle to remember that we (the users) are the product. If the content we like shifts or we harness the platform’s features in different ways, their core business will change too.
Of course, incumbent social network companies have to change. They are at the end of the day, for-profit businesses and we live in a capitalist society. Sorry. It sucks.