It’s hard to know exactly when Instagram became… like this. (Even Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner agree.) The platform I used to love now won’t let me scroll two thumbs without showing me a random melting burrata, flat renovation or dropshipped dress to buy. I don’t want it! I’m sorry but, at this rate, Instagram is headed for social media purgatory, joining MySpace, Facebook and… Ello.
OG fans would argue it went downhill a few years after it was sold to Facebook, now Meta, in 2012 (and after everyone migrated there from Tumblr). But many of us have had years of entertainment on the app since then. How would we have known about nights out we weren’t invited to without Stories? How would we have known which ex-Love Island contestant had landed which fast fashion partnership without the grid? How would we have watched grainy concert footage without Instagram Video?
I really used to like you, Instagram. You were the chicer cousin of Facebook – which everyone left when the MLM huns, racist boomers and conspiracy theorists took over. The election of Donald Trump closed the book on Facebook being a place anyone under 40 wanted to spend any time, unless they needed to check what their Year 9 boyfriend’s new wife looked like, or what events were happening that month. And as Facebook became weaker, Instagram grew stronger.
But now, going on Instagram is simply not fun. WTF is up with Suggested Reels? Why are they experimenting with a 9x16 feed? Why can’t I see any of my friends’ or favourite creators posts anymore? Where did it all go wrong?
It could have been any of the following, to be honest.
Removing the Likes feature
When Instagram started getting backlash for negatively affecting people’s mental health – which shocked everyone, obviously – their response was not to indicate which photos had been FaceTuned, remove beauty filters or give you the option to hide girls who were hotter than you in the Explore tab. It was to give you the option to remove the likes tally. This might be helpful for some, obviously. But they still have just as much data to sell to advertisers and continue to aggressively peddle Instagram Shopping. So you can still feel shit about yourself – just more privately.
Flexing culture is intrinsic to Instagram, yes, but it’s also the app’s chronic disease. Who really wants to see an influencer in a private jet while on their train commute? And not even an actual private jet, but a mock-up of a private jet.
Flexing, plus a non-chronological feed that prioritised influencer content, made Instagram less a relatable place to share photos and moments from your life, and more a place to be the worst person imaginable. Wasn’t Instagram more fun when you were allowed to post sunsets and blurry photos of your dog? When was the last time you posted a photo with the Valencia filter? Maybe it was when you were last truly happy. Raising the content stakes this much made everyone afraid to post, leaving it to become a race to the bottom for all-marble-everything influencers, and douchebags.
Spiralisers and meal prep
You know what’s mad? The fact an entire generation of women were convinced that water-based vegetables could be as satisfying as pasta, largely thanks to Instagram. The scourge of clean-eating influencers like Deliciously Ella led to our feeds being littered with plate after plate of bland dishes we were told would fill us up just as much as the devil food (bread).
This was bad enough, but it also paved the way for bodybuilding gym influencers to think literally anyone would want to see their meal prep photos (a long line-up of identical Tupperwares filled with unseasoned chicken, boiled broccoli and sweet potato). The result of all this was that when people found recipes on TikTok that called for entire sticks of butter, they lapped them up. Spiralisers made people hungry for ten long years. Bestie, we were hungry for change.
Kicking out people with any creativity or voice
One of the things Instagram was good for was connecting you with people who had something to say (sex workers, political activists, queer campaigners, feminists – many of whom found their following on Instagram).
For sex workers in particular, being able to use IG as a marketing tool was essential. They were small business owners who needed to sell OnlyFans subscriptions at a time when physical contact was off the agenda thanks to COVID. If they’d been selling hand-poured candles, this would have been fine. But because they were selling sexy stuff, they were booted off (or frozen from) the platform, like a kid caught smoking at Sunday school.
There were similar stories from activists or anyone acknowledging that they have nipples. Removing and antagonising the people who actually made Instagram interesting killed its purpose. But yeah, at least there were all those bowls of salad.
An early nail in Instagram’s coffin was the “Instagram Comedy” era, spearheaded by the likes of Lele Pons and Ray Diaz. This was the term used to describe those really unfunny Instagram Video “sketches” that were popular a few years ago, in the post-Vine pre-TikTok age of the internet.
They rinsed every possible joke you could make about cheating and toxic relationships – that’s not very many – with cry face emoji captions and sad violin stock music, to the tune of five to ten million views per video. This cheapened the platform, and gave the impression that Instagram endorsed sexual harassment as “comedy”. Boo!
TikTok being way better thanks to data harvesting
Thanks to its “aggressive” data collection practices, TikTok became a more entertaining app. While the Instagram algorithm seemed to favour identikit faces tweaked with filler (which soon became dull), TikTok showed you stuff it thought you’d find funny, weird or relatable. And it knew exactly what this would be, because it knew everything about you.
Unless they were in the first cohort of teens who built TikTok by doing the most boring dance routines imaginable (in Bella Poarch’s case, just moving her head from side-to-side), creators had to bring something special to get big on TikTok. Either way, the FYP meant their content could be seen by millions of people even if they had no followers, and that was entirely novel. Consequently, Instagram was in "turmoil", so:
Instagram trying to be TikTok
I mean, this is the crux of the issue really isn’t it. Imitating another platform worked for Instagram before (see: Stories and Snapchat). But that was a different time, when we had much more limited phone storage and needed to condense apps to have multi-functionality.
Fast forward to 2022 and we can confidently say: We didn’t need Instagram Reels. We need the platform to go back to what it was good at – letting everyone post nice photos and Stories, in chronological order. Anyone who has accidentally been sucked into the Instagram Reels vortex knows it is just a compilation of puppy and bunny videos (good), static tweets on white video backgrounds and videos you saw on TikTok last week.
Simultaneously, Instagram seems to suppress photo posts from people you actually follow in favour of Suggested Reels from people you don’t. To make matters worse, they’ve said they’ll limit the reach of posts which are downloaded from TikTok.
And the best news of all? Instagram love Reels. They now make up 20 percent of the time a user spends on the app. And now Instagram are experimenting with changing the layout to make everything – including photos – full screen vertical. What pure hell is this? Absolutely no one wants this.
Photo-sharing platforms were not entirely new when Instagram was rolled out in 2010. Flickr and Tumblr had been there before, but no one did it better than Instagram. It’s been an S-tier platform for many internet years. But as the old saying goes: better a poor original than a good imitation. Sadly, Instagram becoming TikTok screams desperate. And unless Instagram returns to doing what it does well – casual Stories, photos of friends, giving a voice to young people and activists – it will surely go in the bin.
For now, the Meta platform with the best hope for the future appears to be WhatsApp, for sharing TikTok links.