When did Instagram get so boring? The photo sharing app, once the apple of Facebook’s eye, has spent years rebuffing accusations of toxicity. But tedium is a painful new problem. The shift poses a threat to Instagram’s money-making abilities just as its owner’s market valuation approaches a trillion dollars.
It is difficult to know whether Instagram has changed or its users have simply grown up. The millennials who made Instagram into a phenomenon are creeping towards middle age, after all. Uploading selfies requires time and effort they no longer have to spare. It might even feel embarrassing. My own feed is rapidly thinning out. Posts from friends are disappearing, replaced by brand campaigns. Influencers, a breed of online celebrity created to flog things to followers, have taken over the app.
The pandemic seems to have hastened an existing trend. Bragging, the motivation for most Instagram posts, did not sit well with cancelled holidays and shuttered restaurants. Max Read, the former editor in chief of Gawker, wrote last year that he left Instagram in early 2020 after the app became “unsettlingly boring” in lockdown. Actress Gal Gadot’s cringeworthy attempt to cheer up the masses by uploading an Instagram video of her famous friends singing Imagine did manage to unite the public, but only against everybody involved in the video. The existential question of what performative social media is for became difficult to answer.
Instagram’s dwindling appeal is reflected in the time that people spend there. In the UK, 18-24-year-olds spent 10 and a half minutes looking at it each day last September. This was down from over 15 minutes the previous year, according to an Ofcom report. The same group spent over half an hour watching TikToks and over an hour on YouTube.
Every social media platform cedes power to rivals over time. But for years, Instagram has defined the sector. Launched in 2010 by Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom, its main selling point was its photo filters. All of a sudden, flawless images were available to anyone with a smartphone. The app gained a reputation for positivity too: it provided a refuge from the sniping and arguments on Facebook and Twitter. By summer 2018, it had over 1bn monthly active users, making Facebook’s $1bn purchase six years earlier look like a bargain. Its success was so all encompassing that it bred internal resentment at Facebook, according to Wired magazine.
Over time, however, Instagram’s manufactured perfection warped into something that could be more harmful. It became notorious for encouraging feelings of inadequacy in its users. Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that connection is at the heart of all Facebook products, but the real drive is attention. Instagram users turned their cameras on themselves, uploading an unprecedented number of self-portraits. The ubiquity of filtered selfies led to a rise in plastic surgery procedures in pursuit of the so-called Instagram face.
In retrospect, 2018 may have been the app’s high point. That same year, Instagram’s founders left Facebook, unable to agree about its future. Facebook took the opportunity to clutter the app up with more video and shopping links, all with an eye to monetisation. Instagram’s minimalist design has been replaced by a grab-bag that looks more like Facebook’s own app. It has not provided an update on user numbers in three years, suggesting growth has been slowing.
Meanwhile, a backlash to the perfection that the app peddles has been brewing. There is a trend on short video app TikTok to show a seemingly artless photo uploaded to Instagram and then reveal the real story behind it. The apparently casual image took 20 attempts. The water in the lake was polluted. The private jet never left the airport. It turns out that the rest of the world is not, in fact, having a better, more special, more colour-saturated time than you.
Perhaps the cracks began to show in January 2019, when a photo of an egg overtook Kylie Jenner as the most-liked Instagram post. The campaign was a deliberate bit of mischief-making from users. That same year, TikTok took off in the US, full of irreverent jokes and a younger cohort of creators. Instagram’s Reels equivalent has so far failed to dent TikTok’s success.
Instagram must hope that its user base is big enough to avoid MySpace-style irrelevance. Facebook has shown that it is skilled in extracting more revenue from the same pool of users even as its cultural impact dwindles. User growth in the US and Canada has stalled, but Facebook’s average revenue per user jumped nearly a fifth last year. It is going to need to perform the same trick again with Instagram. If not, user boredom will start to hit the company’s bottom line.