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9 July 2021

Instagram’s pivot to video marks the end of social media as we know it

TikTok has killed the photo app star. 

By Sarah Manavis

Few trends, apps, innovations, companies, franchises, inventions or people have made as great a cultural impact in the past decade as Instagram. The photo-sharing app took the cultural changes Facebook made in online communication, and capitalised on them, to make us realise that our lives seemed so much more enticing as a series of filtered images. Throughout the 2010s, Instagram revolutionised our ideas of celebrity, success and beauty: fundamentally changing what an “aspirational” life looked like.

But as of last week, Instagram is leaving behind its focus on pictures – and pivoting to video, according to head of Instagram Adam Mosseri. 

“We’re no longer a photo-sharing app,” he said in a clip posted to his social channels. He explained that over the next six months, the app will start experimenting with different types of video – “full screen, immersive, entertaining, mobile-first video” – and explicitly acknowledged TikTok and YouTube as competition. 

“People are looking to Instagram to be entertained,” he concluded. “We have to embrace that.”

This announcement comes alongside a number of major functionality changes to some of the biggest platforms in the world. Alongside Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are also making fundamental tweaks to how they work. TikTok announced on 1 July that videos could now be up to three minutes in length, tripling the previous limitation of 60 seconds. Last year, YouTube started beta-testing Shorts – TikTok-style 60-second videos – which are now available for creators in most Western countries

Although Mosseri said that YouTube was one of Instagram’s perceived competitors, it’s clear that both Instagram and YouTube are making these shifts in order to mostly compete with TikTok. (YouTube pre-dates Instagram, and even during the “pivot-to-video” craze of 2015, Instagram didn’t change the app to accommodate video content. IGTV – Instagram’s long-form video function – wasn’t introduced until June 2018, and Instagram Reels – its version of TikTok’s 60 second videos – is still less than a year old.)

It’s easy to see why these companies are trying to mimic TikTok’s business model. Short, engaging video, served up by a hyper-effective algorithm, has been proven to keep audiences hooked in an unprecedented way – an impressive feat, given how much of our attention was already sucked up by these other platforms. But this unashamed scramble to win over some of the attention TikTok has captured – by copying its offering with little consideration for how it might work on a completely different app – may prove fatal for Instagram and YouTube; and ultimately signals the beginning of the end of what we have understood social media to be in the past 15 years. 

[see also: How TikTok conquered the world]

Why TikTok-style videos don’t work on Instagram is the same reason why short videos don’t work on YouTube: it’s jarring to feel like you’re on another app (TikTok) when you have deliberately logged in to experience a completely different one. Instagram requires less of your attention than TikTok, allowing you to silently scroll and spend a fraction of a second on each post, while YouTube demands more of your attention (the average video length on YouTube is actually getting longer). Many Instagram users will be familiar with the bloodcurdling screech of accidentally clicking on the Reels tab, with a video of a meme or comedy skit suddenly foisted upon them with the sound automatically turned on. For Instagram’s slightly older audience, having video content pushed into their feed feels unnatural and intrusive, but Instagram continues to incentivise creators to make video content. (Some influencers have claimed their engagement has dropped when they don’t use Instagram’s video functionality – and conversely they are rewarded with more likes and views when they do.)

Mosseri’s announcement explicitly acknowledges that the app will prioritise “entertainment”, which he classes as video content (though, are pictures not entertainment?), explaining that the company would be testing recommendations, fiddling with its algorithm, and putting video at the forefront of those suggestions. Whether users like it or not, watching videos on Instagram may soon no longer be a choice. 

The impact of this change – supported by YouTube’s own attempt to take over some of this territory – is twofold. First, users of Old Social Media, until now, have always had a place to go. Facebook, for example, has leaned into its growing reputation as a place for boomers by shifting away from brands and celebrity “pages” and towards community groups and individuals. While it made tepid attempts at incorporating Instagram-style Stories (which were modelled on Snapchat’s main functionality), it didn’t try to force its core demographic to use the app in a fundamentally different way. If established platforms start chasing what other apps are doing (rather than improving on what they’re already good at in order to compete), many users will find they’ve lost a platform that suits them, and the platform may well lose those users as a result.

But second, and perhaps most concerning, is the trend towards app homogeneity. In the late Noughties and early 2010s, when household-name platforms were becoming the giants that they are today, apps tried above all else to make themselves appear different; capitalising on untapped parts of the same market. Distinction was what made apps soar – you joined Twitter because it offered something Facebook didn’t; you joined Instagram because it wasn’t Twitter. But as apps all race to offer the same service, under arbitrarily different branding, who is being served? 

As apps increasingly attempt to compete with each other at the same game, almost every available platform focuses even less on what users actually want. Though social media companies are infamous for not having their users’ best interests at heart, this disregard is reaching sinister new levels. The few upsides to social media are the genuine connections it can create between people, the platform it can offer the powerless, and the opportunities for real fun and creativity. A set of apps that all provide the same thing – the promotion of basic, algorithmically-popular videos – means stagnation, if not a complete obsolescence of those positive elements of being online. 

While Instagram may haemorrhage older users in the long run, it seems likely that in the short term, this pivot will work for it financially. It will continue to hang onto those users willing the app not to change, while picking up a few who want TikTok-style content wherever they go (made by influencers who will be incentivised to create it). But this moment is the starting pistol for the end of Old Social Media as we know it, and the beginning of a new era of digital use entirely focused on fattening Silicon Valley’s bottom line. 

[see also: A new lawsuit against TikTok continues the backlash against Big Tech’s plans for children]

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