In early May, Instagram’s Meta manager Adam Mosseri shared some news: The social media app’s main feed is said to look dramatically different for some users.
For those in a small test group, the feed they’d been using for a decade would be replaced with an “immersive viewing experience” featuring full-screen photos and videos with lots of posts from people they didn’t follow. In other words, Instagram would start to look and feel even more like TikTok, the short video app that Meta considers its biggest competition.
“Let me know what you think in the comments below,” said the ever-heartfelt Mosseri. And with the patience of a parent showing their child both sides of an argument, he invited Instagram users to be honest with him: “If you love it, great. If you hate it, great.”
And tell him they did. On multiple platforms where the test was announced, users responded en masse with negative feedback: “terrible”; “Very disgusting”; “unusable.” Some said they immediately closed the app because they didn’t like the full screen feed that way. Others complained that they only saw Reels, Meta’s short video format that mimics TikTok videos, and other posts from accounts they don’t follow. And this week, even Instagram users in the highest echelon of influence — like Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian — circulated a meme imploring the company to “make Instagram Instagram again,” sparking a full-blown media crisis.
Just days after Kylie and Kim came in, Instagram admitted: Mosseri said the company would phase out the full-screen test and cut back on recommended content for everyone. Internal company data showed that the full-screen redesign took a bite out of key user engagement metrics. Admittedly, the recommendations weren’t as good as they should be, a far cry from TikTok’s algorithm that seems to read your mind. The changes that caused so much resistance were not just a matter of taste. They were really just poor.
“If you discover something in your field that you weren’t following before, there should be a high bar – it should just be amazing,” Mosseri told platform game‘s Casey Newton. “You should be happy to see it. And I don’t think that’s happening enough right now.”
But even if Instagram temporarily withdraws certain updates, no amount of memes, celebrity pleas, or Change.org petitions will force the company to abandon its plans to become more like TikTok. Meta, owner of Instagram and Facebook, is betting on Reels as a key area for his business as growth slows. CEO Mark Zuckerberg ramps up the pressure on his employees and other top executives warn of problems for the company. While Kylie bought everyone some time, Meta’s Instagram ambitions — from leaning on recommendations to focusing on short video — don’t stop there. Like it or not, this is what the future of Instagram looks like, because the future of Meta depends on it.
The changes have already caused friction among long-time users. Reports show that engagement with photos, non-reel videos, and carousel posts has fallen by more than 40 percent on average, causing problems for users who rely on Instagram for business. Users say their feeds are full of irrelevant content from strangers, making it harder to see posts from accounts they follow. The gap between what users say they want and where Instagram is pushing them is leaving creators wondering what’s left for them on the platform.
“So Instagram hates photographers now?” New York-based photographer Dino Kusnik tweeted earlier this month in a moment of frustration.
Instagram has been a powerful marketing tool for creatives like Kužnik for many years. His surreal, dreamlike photos brought him more than 76,000 followers on the platform, helping him find new clients, drive print sales and even land photography awards.
“[Your Instagram presence] has become more important than your actual website and a physical portfolio,” says Kužnik. “The producers who would hire me… everyone is looking for photographers on Instagram right now.”
Kužnik says he doesn’t obsessively monitor how his posts are performing, but sometime last year he noticed his photos didn’t gain the same traction they once did. Kužnik estimates that his engagement and impressions for him have fallen between 70 and 80 percent, and other photographers he spoke to confirm his findings. A survey of 81 million Instagram posts by Later, a social media marketing company, found that engagement in feed posts excluding IG Lives and Reels has dropped an average of 44 percent since 2019.
The poor performance of feed posts on the platform has had an external impact on Kužnik’s business. A photo post three years ago – before Reels’ launch in 2020 – might have garnered 5,000 or 10,000 likes and resulted in five people emailing it to buy prints. Now Kužnik says he might get one exam or none at all.
The relentless pressure to create and watch Reels begins to wear off Kužnik. He considers making a reel as a test as his engagement with posts continues to decline. But he has doubts about the pressure to be video first and fears that becoming a full Reels account would diminish the quality of his photography. For Kužnik and the thousands of others who sensed the sentiment of his tweet, Instagram’s recent evolution is a reminder that the platform has always been just a tool, subject to change in what is deemed most profitable.
“Their priority is capital, not making photographers happy,” says Kužnik.
Instagram’s sharp pivot to short video is a strategic decision. Meta faces a range of potentially existential threats: Facebook lost users for the first time earlier this year. Meta reported its first-ever revenue decline this week. And the company’s grand vision of Web3 and the associated investments in the metaverse are still years away from paying off — if they ever do, that is. Now Facebook is undergoing its own transformation to act more like TikTok as well. Mimicking TikTok isn’t just about hindering the competition; it is an attempt to correct existing problems that are too big to ignore.
But the engineering of a TikTok copy seems to alienate longtime users, including influential figures who have largely built their public personas — and fortunes — using Instagram. Zuckerberg told investors on Wednesday that the proportion of recommended content users see on their feeds — 15 percent on Facebook and slightly higher on Instagram — would double by the end of 2023. And even after Jenner and Kardashian complained about what the platform had become, Mosseri has been clear that he will continue to push Instagram for more videos and recommendations.
“We could just don’t enable videos. We couldn’t try to make our video offering as good as our photo offering, or as good as the competition’s video offering,” Mosseri said. platform game on Thursday. “But I think that would be a mistake.”
we don’t want to make videos Adam lol
— chrissy Teigen (@chrissyteigen) July 26, 2022
Meta spokesperson Christine Pai says the company is working to show users a mix of posts from friends, family and strangers, as well as a balance of photos and videos “based on what we think you’d like to see.”
“Feedback from our community is critical to getting this right, and we will continue to iterate and explore new options based on what we hear,” said Pai.
For Jenneh Rishe, the changes feel piling up like being left behind. Rishe, who leads a non-profit dedicated to endometriosis education and advocacy, Instagram says its jump to video has turned its ability to reach voters on its head. Like Kužnik, Rishe’s involvement with images has taken a nosedive, and she worries that people who need resources for endometriosis won’t know what the organization offers because they won’t see it.
Rishe experimented with roles and found that engagement was better than her feed posts. But being forced to create Reels in hopes of reaching people who already follow her — or new people who might find her organization — is at odds with the ethos of her work around chronic illness and disability.
“I feel like the drive for Reels is about entertainment, and that’s not what I do,” says Rishe.
And ironically, the dramatic drop in reach on the platform has shaken her confidence that her followers will see everything she posts, including Reels.
“I recently had a conversation with my husband,” Rishe says. “I’m like, ‘Should I be on TikTok?'”