Originally posted on wired.
As TikTok goes from strength to strength, Instagram is suffering from an identity crisis under the ever-closer control of Facebook
In 2019, staff at Instagram’s New York City headquarters were summoned to a meeting. They had just learned that the app would be working with Ogilvy, an advertising agency who had recently run campaigns for the US Border Patrol, which was still in the spotlight after photographs of children in cages at the American border went viral in 2018, prompting international condemnation.
Instagram’s latinx staff were particularly unhappy about the prospect of working with Ogilvy. “We had a meeting with the vice president of marketing, who was new at the time,” says Lucas*, a former Instagram employee. “Somebody mentioned that it’s really detrimental for a brand that’s supposed to look like we’re open-minded and youthful, to be associated with an advertising agency that’s trying to make American Border Patrol look human.”
His response? After what Lucas describes as a brief “screaming match”, the now-former vice president said, “Well, Instagram doesn’t exist anymore, you are Facebook!” Then everyone went silent.
Since Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012, the app has grown to an estimated one billion monthly users. It reportedly generates around $20 billion a year in advertising revenue. But this growth has coincided with a steady loss of autonomy. Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, says that Instagram has gradually become less of a “company within a company” and more of a “product division” of Facebook.
This chimes with what several former Instagram employees have told WIRED. Jason*, who recently left Instagram after two years at the company, describes an envy-fuelled relationship between Facebook and Instagram “Initially, Facebook’s fear was that Instagram was becoming more of a force than Facebook. So there was a real jealousy because Instagram was seen as cool and Facebook was not,” he says.
Jason claims that Facebook’s paranoia resulted in a “self-imposed dominance” on the other apps that it owns. “Now, if you go on Instagram or WhatsApp, it says ‘WhatsApp by Facebook’ or ‘Instagram by Facebook’. So rather than embracing the fact that they had this new property [Instagram] that still had some cachet at the time, they just decided to ‘Facebook-ify’ it,” he says. “They thought: ‘the problem isn’t that people don’t like Facebook, it’s that they don’t know that Facebook owns Instagram!’, which was obviously completely delusional.”
This enforced closeness hasn’t always been welcomed by Instagram, particularly as Facebook began to become more associated with older users, disinformation and online radicalisation. “If you look at the differences between the ways in which Instagram and Facebook are perceived, one of the great fears that Instagram had was its connection to Facebook,” says Kevin*, another former employee who left Instagram earlier this year.
These fears might not be unfounded. As Facebook has taken more control over Instagram, it feels like there is a growing disconnect between what its users want and what the app is giving them. This came to the forefront on July 30, when Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, tweeted a video updating people on some of their current priorities. “At Instagram we’re always trying to build new features that help you get the most out of your experience,” Mosseri said. “Right now we’re focused on four key areas: creators, video, shopping and messaging.”
On the face of things, there’s nothing unusual about this tweet. Mosseri, who took the helm at Instagram in 2018 after 13 years at Facebook, regularly posts videos like this. Wearing an array of patterned shirts, he tells his followers what Instagram is doing and how things like “the algorithm” actually work. But this particular post went viral. It was quickly “ratioed”, with quote-tweets and replies far outnumbering the number of likes and retweets.
The response? “You guys CONSISTENTLY undermine what made your app great in the first place,” Amber wrote. “All we ever wanted was a chronological feed to keep up with friends,” replied Jax. “You do realize that what made IG great originally was that it was just an image platform, right?” asked another user. A word that comes up often when scrolling through the replies to Mosseri’s tweet is “clueless”, as does the belief that constant updates are “killing Instagram from the inside” and that the app is having an identity crisis.
Instagram did not make a spokesperson available for an interview for this piece. However, the company stressed the app has a “different focus” to Facebook and that Mosseri and employees make decisions about the app. The company also says it tries to keep its product simple.
There wasn’t always such tension between Instagram and its users. In 2010, Instagram’s mobile-first approach helped it stand out against the social media competition. It was the first app to really fit with our lifestyles. “Instagram wasn’t something you were supposed to update once you were back home on your computer,” Frier says. “It was something you’re supposed to bring around in the world with you and capture what you were seeing and experiencing.”
There were other features that drove its popularity. “On your profile, there was no reshare button, so everything that was on your profile was something you had created or posted yourself,” Frier says. “In some ways it was the truest reflection of how we saw ourselves, and we were able to use it as a way to present our lives as more beautiful and perfect than they actually were.” Celebrities using the app was another pull factor. Fans had already been able to connect celebrities on Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram’s now-iconic range of filters created a shared aesthetic – and the perception of a new level of closeness – between celebrities and regular users.
So what changed? In 2012, Facebook paid $1bn to acquire Instagram. It’s been reported numerous times that competition with Twitter (which allegedly made an offer before Facebook) motivated Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg to purchase the photo-sharing rival. It has also been claimed that, although it was tiny by comparison, Instagram’s mobile growth and younger userbase was concerning for Facebook, so buying the platform would allow Zuckerberg to manage its growth and any potential threat. (It’s thought that the same thought process drove Facebook’s 2014 purchase of WhatsApp, the third most-downloaded app of the last decade).
After 2012, the “Facebook-ification” of Instagram began. When the app launched, its simple premise – sharing photos, one at a time, with your friends – made it stand out. By contrast, Facebook was the land of large photo dumps, pokes, live chat and relationships that were “complicated”, while Twitter was all about posting as much as possible. Instagram introduced new features more slowly, like adding videos to the grid and the option to add more than one photo to each post.
One of Instagram’s most popular updates, Instagram Stories, arrived in 2016. Unlike the grid, this new method of posting encouraged users to share smaller moments more often. This also marked the first time that Instagram had explicitly copied a feature from another social media platform – in this case, Snapchat – with the very clear goal of stopping its growth.
Instagram’s plan worked: Snapchat’s growth slowed by 82 per cent after Stories launched. Although Snapchat is still a multi-billion dollar company with over 250 million users worldwide, Stories are an example of how Facebook has used Instagram combatively. “Facebook probably purchased Instagram to manage its growth, at a time when we were becoming increasingly popular and Facebook was starting to go on the downward spiral,” says Jason. “But Facebook also uses Instagram to neutralise threats from platforms like Snapchat who are popular with younger users in particular.”
Instagram Stories were a success from a user and business standpoint. Copycat versions also appeared on Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn (though the latter two were swiftly canned). But Stories also marked the moment where Instagram started acting defensively and playing catch-up. It was no longer the new, cool thing.
The next time that Instagram tried to blatantly imitate a feature from another app, it was nowhere near as successful. This happened in 2020, when Reels were introduced as a response to the meteoric rise of TikTok. Reels further crowded an already busy app, which was now packed full of new functions in Stories, grid-sharing, IGTV, Instagram Live, shopping and messaging. The update failed to stop TikTok, which now has more Gen Z users than Instagram in the US and over one billion monthly users worldwide.
So why weren’t Reels as successful as Stories? Frier thinks that, despite the obvious business motivations, Stories solved a problem for Instagram’s users at the time: many were feeling too much pressure around what they were posting on the grid. “This was something that was causing some users a lot of anxiety and making them compare themselves to other people,” she says. “This was actually bad for growth, because the pressure to post meant that people were posting less, which means there were fewer posts for regular people and the whole app was getting taken over by celebrity types. That’s not sustainable for a business.”
The introduction of Stories was a win-win: it solved a user problem and accelerated Instagram’s growth, while also stopping Snapchat’s initial surge in popularity. But Reels were purely a business fix. “Nobody needed Reels and there was no user problem that Reels were trying to solve,” Frier says. “Instead, Reels were purely about trying to solve a business problem for Facebook Inc, which was the rise of TikTok.”
TikTok didn’t become popular in a vacuum. And its rise highlights another growing problem for Instagram: its ageing users. As Facebook became associated with older users, Instagram was initially its way of connecting with younger people. But now that Facebook is considered “for boomers”, Instagram is pretty much trading as “millennial Facebook”. Now millennials are getting older and are no longer the youngest, most sought-after demographic.
In response to this shift, there has been a move towards being more “youth-driven” at Instagram. Jason says there has been frustration behind-the-scenes, where there was a disconnect between expectations and reality. “As the Instagram audience began to age, you could see a frustration around what was trending and what people were interacting with,” he says. “They kept talking about having a ‘youth focus’, but things like home decor and parenting became really popular on the platform. And these things aren’t cool or trendy to teenagers, so even though they were growing in popularity and possibly more lucrative, they just kind of ignored it and did everything they could to pretend that wasn’t happening.”
Instagram’s struggles coincide with a re-evaluation of the role social media platforms have in our lives. The app might have avoided the negative political associations of Facebook and Twitter, despite political influencers like Ben Shapiro, Trump Jr and Candace Owens being huge on the platform, but Instagram’s association with influencers and brands has come under scrutiny. It’s impossible to escape a barrage of ads and paid partnerships while using the app. Global news stories such as Fyre Festival, a doomed event that influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoted on Instagram, or the rise and fall of Australian Instagram star and “wellness guru” scammer Belle Gibson, have soured its public image.
When it comes to influencers, Jason says Instagram yet again had its head in the sand. “‘Influencer’ was a dirty word and we would never use it in any report or any internal-facing memo, because the connotations around influencers were not necessarily positive,” he says. But the problem with this approach was that influencers had become synonymous with Instagram whether they liked it or not. “We didn’t have control over the narrative,” he says. “We didn’t create the word, or even use the word, that ended up defining us.”
As Instagram became gradually more polished and corporate, the opening for TikTok – a less pristine and purposefully “un-serious” platform – got wider. TikTok has its own mega-influencers, like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae. TikTokers can also make money from brand partnerships and, unlike Instagram, the platform’s Creator Fund pays users with over 10,000 followers (or 100,000 monthly views) for engagement too. Still, right now Instagram seems to be more negatively associated with influencers cashing in from brands, even at a time when many are prioritising TikTok instead. It’s a lose-lose.
Lucas worked on Reels up until they were rolled out globally. He remembers it was obvious that there was going to be a problem. “The product was essentially the same as TikTok so people were just transferring over their TikToks into Reels, with the watermark still visible,” he says. “And then most of the original content that was being produced on Reels was much lower like calibre than what TikTokers were producing on a daily basis.”
The decision to press ahead with Reels regardless of early indications is allegedly typical of the way Instagram is run. “It’s a very strange work environment,” Kevin says. “It is a certain kind of tech company that still has the delusion that they’re a startup, or some sort of underdog.” Decisions often feel like they’re made quickly, whether the data supports them or not. “None of the ‘higher-ups’ would ever admit that something was not a great idea, even if it was obviously stupid – unless you got them drunk.”
Mosseri’s pledge to focus on “creators” (because influencer still seems to be a dirty word) seems understandable at a time when many are de-prioritising the platform. But the problem is that many users think brands, businesses and influencers are already too dominant and are ruining their experience on the app. The failure of youth-driven features like Reels and a new focus on shopping, when Instagram already feels like a giant shop, only adds the feeling that the app is confused about its direction.
So what now? Perhaps it’s not possible for Instagram to go back to basics, as so many of its users seem to want. It’s gone from being a new digital phenomenon, to something that has been completely normalised in our lives. But it is striking just how much it has changed. Scrolling through Instagram, so much content is recycled from other apps, whether it’s Reels lifted from TikTok or meme pages full of reposted screengrabs of viral tweets. Despite so many new features, nothing feels new.
Frier thinks this decreased relevance is down to Facebook. After all, as Instagram’s former VP of Marketing once said, it’s not a separate entity anymore. “Instagram used to be about finding things that you didn’t even know you wanted to find,” she says. “But now, if you use Instagram, the vibe is a lot more like Facebook. What I mean by that is you’re getting shown things based on what you’ve already viewed. So instead of discovering new things – like people can do much more easily on TikTok – you just get more of the same.”
It’s true that when Instagram first arrived, its function was clear. Now that’s no longer the case. “Looking at Instagram today, it’s much harder to tell what it’s actually for,” Frier says. “That might be solving a business problem for Facebook, but Instagram has ended up losing a lot of its identity in the process.”
*Names have been changed