The TikTokification of Instagram
The first major photo-based platform has turned into a clickbait advertising circus. Is it starting to lose its millennial audience — just like Facebook?
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I’ve always had a somewhat reluctant relationship with Instagram. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer: I prefer words to pictures. Alongside the other 1 billion monthly users, I’ve spent the best part of a decade building a platform on there. The allure and popularity of Instagram back in 2010 came from the fact that it was one of the first photo-sharing apps with filters. It was more streamlined than Facebook, kinder than Twitter, chicer than MySpace. It was a platform that artists could express themselves on. Of course, platforms have to evolve. Nothing stays the same over ten years. But Instagram’s rather extreme pivot towards shopping and TikTok style video makes it almost unrecognisable. Instead of a leisurely scroll through beautiful imagery, I am now fed strange animal memes, comedians doing Reels and gross food videos from people I don’t follow. I hardly ever see the posts from the people I actually want to see.
It’s become a strange game, trying to work out ‘hacks’ in order to ‘boost’ your reach. I don’t have the time anymore. When it comes to using Instagram for my career, my posts reach a tiny percentage of my overall audience. I have over 60,000 followers and yet my latest post (announcing an exciting piece of book-related career news) only reached 5% of my audience. It got 150 likes. Hardly anyone saw it.
Instagram say they can’t (won’t?) show your content to more of your followers for these two reasons: 1) they simply can’t make people look at everything from everyone they follow and 2) you have the option to pay and ‘boost’ your post to reach more of your audience. For many, having a social media presence already feels like a full-time unpaid job on top of your actual job so the idea of ‘pivoting to video’ makes me want to lie down in a dark room.
The message over the past few years has been loud and clear: it’s your fault if your posts don’t reach anyone. If your reach is plummeting, you haven’t posted something engaging enough. You haven’t had enough comments on your posts. You haven’t created a good enough Reel, or spent enough time on being the art director of your own life. People with the job title of ‘Instagram consultant’ now exist because it’s that much of a minefield. I have been told by someone close to Instagram HQ that the thing most people now do is ‘form a group with other creators and like each other’s posts to boost engagement’. I don’t want to do this. A friend of mine with loads of followers recently suggested I do ‘3-second videos of my book shelves’ as it would get more engagement than a photo. I love the kindness of offering me this tip, but that suggestion nearly brought me out in hives. These written newsletters reach 80% of my readership. So, I’m finding myself asking, what’s the point in being on Instagram?
Last week, I tweeted about my issues with Instagram. Twitter, for the most part, remains chronological in the feed. My engagement on Twitter (unlike Instagram) is booming. According to my recent analytics, I reach around 1 million people every month. When I picked up my phone again after publishing my tweet, I saw I had thousands of likes and hundreds of replies, from politicians to small business owners to bestselling authors stating their similar frustrations with Instagram. I’m not saying I started a trend, but the next day, three different newspapers contacted me for a comment, then Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner criticised the platform too: they shared posts on their Instagram Stories asking the Insta bosses to "make Instagram Instagram again", i.e. stop trying to be TikTok. The head of Instagram Adam Mosseri has made it very clear: more and more of Instagram is going to become video based.
I wonder if us users/creators do have an element of collective power to change the direction of a platform we use and love, or whether we are shouting into the wind. This will be intriguing to watch. I fear Instagram is a sinking ship with their Millennial audience specifically — just like Facebook — when it stopped being a place to connect, and became a clickbait advertising circus instead. Then a digital graveyard.
Here are six reasons why I think Instagram are losing their audience:
1. “Pivot to video”
When I worked at a glossy magazine in 2015 (that no longer exists as a magazine), we were told to ‘pivot to video’ by top Facebook execs. Magazines were struggling to sell physical copies, and website traffic was hard to stabilize, so we were told by Facebook et al to increase video content. Official YouTube channels were launched, video production teams were paid, video was uploaded to Facebook. The magazine folded two years later. Some creators simply don’t want to ‘pivot to video’ and in some cases, it can be the worst possible strategy for your business.
2. Goodbye to Insta storytelling
It’s been clear that the app experience has been moving towards short-form video for a while now. The reason that the “just a do a Reel!” advice is frustrating to creators is because it simplifies and reduces the art of storytelling. For some people, it works well and helps get a point across succinctly and reaches eyeballs quickly. Fine. But for others, the thing they loved about Instagram is how it enabled them to share a photo, a caption and a narrative. Instagram accounts like Humans of New York (12 million followers) were created as a photo journal, shot in New York City, one story at a time, created by Brandon Stanton. The magic is in the photography and caption. The enjoyment is being able to read the long-form captions slowly. The warmth of the platform came from not feeling bombarded.
3. Louder, faster, bigger (is not always the best strategy)
I understand that in business you have to look at your competitors. Instagram Stories was seemingly born out of realising that people were enjoying the disappearing video offered by Snapchat. But now it feels as though platforms are merging into each other, and they are forgetting their initial brand identity. Bestselling author Bruce Daisley said: “[Instagram have] got a product that plays a unique role in people’s lives and the culture, and they’re throwing it away because they’re enviously looking at the house across the street.” It feels like we’re watching someone change their entire personality to desperately try and fit in with the younger cool kids at school, when actually being themselves was the thing people liked.
4. How addictive content changes our brains
In a two-year study of more than 2,500 high school students in Los Angeles, researchers found that those who consumed the most digital media were also the most likely to develop symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There is a 15-year-old girl who helps her mum out at the nail shop near my house who I catch up with every now and again. When chatting to her recently, she was telling me about her GCSEs. She was getting on okay, but she said she was one of the few in her class who could concentrate. “Many kids in my class have zero attention,” she said. “They watch Tiktok and Reels all day long, they can’t stop. They are addicted to watching short funny videos on a loop and I think it’s doing something to their ability to focus.” This was just her point of view, but it makes sense, that if you watch enough short funny things on repeat, it’s no surprise you’d struggle to read a full book. It’s worrying, not only because I don’t think any viral meme can actually have any real meaningful impact on our lives, but because these short bursts of content are so addictive to our brains.
5. We want to control our online spaces
Life feels out of control for many people — and to be hit with content you never asked for can make you feel even more out of control sometimes. How hard is this to understand that many people use social media to connect with people they like? Instagram have made it clear that the new video direction is all about growth. But not everyone wants to 'grow’ or launch a business or get more and more views. Some people would simply like to connect with the people they have chosen to connect with.
6. Time to put our eggs in different baskets
I remember this story of an Instagram influencer years ago. She was boarding a flight to go on a paid trip away as part of a collaboration. When she stepped off the plane, her Instagram had been hacked, and everything was gone. The hacker had wiped her feed, kept the followers and rebranded it as something else. Her account had been stolen from her. She tried everything but couldn’t get her feed back. Imagine! Having the main platform for your career just go up in smoke like that. Years and years of building a following, and now having to start from scratch again. These stories were used as a warning: do not put everything into one platform, especially one based on followers. The focus on Instagram for the last decade as the main platform for creators has been fascinating. I don’t know if any other platform (apart from Google) is used so often in everyday conversation as a verb (‘Gram it!) I think we are realising our over-reliance on it, and realising there are other options out there. The head of Instagram did a Ted Talk recently all about how creators will have ‘more power’ and in the future ‘own’ their audiences instead of renting them. It’s a great talk and I agree. But right now: Instagram is not the place to do that.
What are your thoughts? Is your relationship with Instagram changing?
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