In a TikTok centered world, I’m still a huge fan of Instagram. I even have an account where I mainly post short videos and image carousels of New Age and ambient music cassettes from the 80s, along with stories about the artists. When I started it, the appeal for me was creating a collection of content, just like a collection of tapes.
But in the world of recommendation algorithms and since the mandatory conversion of all feed videos to Reels, my account seems to belong to an older era. A stranger who stumbled upon my videos from Reels would probably just see that one post and judge it completely out of context, even though that’s not what my account intended to do.
Adding roles isn’t the only change Instagram has gone through, of course. You’ve probably seen headlines about Instagram copying TikTok with its approach to video content and, most recently, BeReal by test a function that encourages users to take a photo at any time every day. Then there’s Instagram Stories, a response to Snapchat that brought Instagram 300 million active users in 2018, more than the entire Snapchat user base.
But this is nothing new or surprising, and Instagram isn’t the only one doing it either. TikTok just panned the same way for to copy Be real. YouTube emulated TikTok with its creation of Shortsand TikTok mirrored Snapchat with the launch of its own Stories-like feature in 2021. Copying isn’t very effective either. Despite the growth, for example Instagram Stories never regained the valuable teen demographic that flocked to Snapchat, and it didn’t stop TikTok’s ascension either
Ethics aside, this is the reality of staying relevant in the rapidly changing world of social media. Tastes and habits change quickly, especially as teens set the tone and want to differentiate themselves from older generations — they want an app that is their own. And while any platform as large as Instagram could exist to monetize its existing audience if it wanted to, it’s not wise for any business to rest on its laurels. It is, after all, a business. When users spend time on one social app, less time is spent on another. Change, experiments and overlap are therefore inevitable.
More important than allegations of facial expressions, the debate over Instagram’s changes has sparked a bigger conversation about identity and whether all platforms become the same. In the case of Instagram, there is something that sets it apart and is worth celebrating by users and brands alike, as long as Instagram stays true to what makes it truly special.
What makes Instagram . . . …Instagram
If avid fans of the platform like me are any indication, Instagram’s core product is simply self-expression through curation. Originally, users followed each other intentionally and every message was built on top of the latter, even if it was indirect. Who you followed and who you followed had meaning, as did the sum of all your posts.
This started to change in 2016 when the platform shifted so that the algorithm could choose what was served to you instead of showing the most recent posts from those you followed. When the algorithm takes over, it’s less about the personality behind it and all about the post itself, reducing deeper stories to standout moments, one after the other. Both brand and personal accounts have a harder time building a personality when their posts are taken out of context.
Strangely enough, given Instagram’s admittedly shaky history with nurturing”authenticityIn fact, the platform’s governance features create space for more authentic forms of self-expression in ways that the current algorithm doesn’t. But even with the way the feed behaves now, the power of curation and the possibilities it creates is what makes Instagram so special. It’s the reason why post-COVIDCovid “photo dumps” rose and finstas persevere. People want to manage and use Instagram in more casual ways.
Looking at their core product as it was launched and popularized, additions like Stories still fit this curated approach, with an added immediacy and intimacy to the messages. In fact, for brands, I’d say Stories have become a must-use feature, especially time-sensitive updates. In comparison, something like an algorithm-driven feed of videos is more like a sit-down entertainment like YouTube or TikTok, and thus a bigger shift for the platform. The latter approach assumes that social media is a commodity and that all platforms are essentially the same. But it isn’t and shouldn’t be.
These changes will ultimately be a test of loyalty and a referendum on the importance of curation. Some of the changes, especially the shift to video, seem to indicate a cynical belief by Instagram that their users are not loyal to their product, that they just want a clone of TikTok with the old Instagram on it. While Instagram is sure it still supports photos, doubles about the shift to video and the algorithm, even though she admits the new full-screen version isn’t the attraction they’d hoped. Time will reveal its true intentions.
Instagram’s evolution is certain, but as it explores change, it should look at its core audience of millennials and see what they really want, and how the app is useful and unique to them. If Instagram can critique a feature of another app in a way that’s helpful to that core audience, I’m all for it. But it has yet to climb up to its core proposition of self-expression through curation.
The value of curation
Realistically, it’s easy to see why focusing on its algorithmic video feeds can seem appealing to Instagram, especially if it benefits brands by immediately increasing reach. More reach means a bigger audience and brands that post a lot of good content can see greater engagement.
But these are short-term gains with greater long-term costs if they go against the spirit of the platform. There’s a difference between fickle “likes” and genuine brand loyalty. As Instagram almost learned it the hard wayif the user base goes down due to changes, then those short-term gains could end up being disastrous for the platform.
New updates on any social platform should be in the spirit of that platform’s core competency and brand proposition. On Twitter, that can mean short messages and hottakes. On TikTok, this can mean short videos. But on Instagram, they’re curated feeds. Curation is not just the olive branch of Instagram for the users; it’s a competitive advantage for itself and the brands that use it. The alternative is to let homogeneity become the norm and create a much less interesting, less impactful and less expressive future on social media for brands and everyday users.
Mark Griffey is the VP, Digital Content of the social media agency Movement strategy.