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30 July 2022

If Silicon Valley wants to ruin Instagram, there is nothing we can do about it

The latest Instagram update is a reminder that the online spaces we have come to call home were never ours.

By Marie Le Conte

About ten years ago, I lived in a three-bedroom flat in east London. I’d found it on Gumtree and shared it with an amiable Australian couple and a quiet Spanish woman. It wasn’t an ideal living arrangement – flatshares with strangers rarely are – but it was pleasant enough.

One day our landlord, a slightly eccentric German man living in Portugal, sent us an email. He was about to return to Britain, he told us, and would be moving back into the living room. We were welcome to stay in the flat; he just wanted to give us a heads up. We all moved out immediately.

Having to find a new place to live at short notice was annoying, of course, but I mainly remember the experience as incredibly jarring. The flat was not our own and the man who owned it was allowed to do as he pleased. I knew that on an intellectual level, but his decision still stung. That flat was my home, even if I didn’t own it; you can’t live somewhere for months on end but remind yourself, every hour of every day, that none of it belongs to you. That is not how human brains work, and would be a recipe for constant misery.

I thought about that flat the other day, for the first time in years, when I watched the head of Instagram Adam Mosseri talk about his platform. “We’re hearing a lot of concerns from all of you,” he said. “I’m hearing a lot of concerns about photos, and how we’re shifting to video… we’re going to continue to support photos… [but] I need to be honest: more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time.”  

The statement came after days of complaints from Instagram users about its latest update. Like a modern Liberty leading the people, Kylie Jenner posted a story to her 360 million followers imploring the powers that be to “MAKE INSTAGRAM INSTAGRAM AGAIN. [PLEASEEEEEE]”.

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She had a point. Instagram was once the place where you could scroll through pictures of friends and various accounts you’d decided to follow. It was quieter than Facebook and more gentle than Twitter. The addition of stories allowed people to post more videos and snappier content, but they were always easy to avoid if they weren’t your thing. 

This latest iteration, however, has brought video squarely into our feeds. They are largely unavoidable and, as Mosseri pointed out, here to stay. It does not matter that we long-term users of Instagram did not want the app to change: there is TikTok now and TikTok is popular, so Instagram must slowly but surely become TikTok. 

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Mosseri has since partially rowed back, saying in an interview a few days later that Instagram would “take a big step back and regroup”. He made it clear, however, that the retreat will not be permanent. We have won the battle but the war is still coming, and it is inevitable they will win eventually. The clarification was welcome but it still came after a defiant and utterly unapologetic statement. As he and we both know, there is power in that relationship and we have none of it.

That is the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the internet. We have these spaces, these apps and platforms that we use every day and that feel like home. They are not physical but they are still the places in which we catch up with our friends, see what our acquaintances are up to, share the good and the bad with those close to us. 

It is easy to know, on an intellectual level, that they are run by rich, occasionally erratic Americans who do not care about our cousin’s new dress or the cat we saw in the street the other day. Still, most of us go through life not really thinking about it, instead treating, say, our Instagram feed as our online neighbourhood. When that neighbourhood gets knocked down and radically redesigned, we feel violated.

It wasn’t always like this – once upon a time, the internet felt more fluid. If we didn’t like it somewhere, we would just move. For years we hopped from platform to platform, like a monkey swinging between branches. Facebook rose and fell but that was fine; there had been other platforms before it and new ones were ready to take its place. 

This changed about a decade ago, when we made ourselves comfortable on the platforms we had and everything started to settle down. The internet began to ossify – it now feels like it’s been static for a long time. Where are the new, insurgent social media spaces? Sure, TikTok is new but it feels closer to entertainment than a social media platform. I can easily post a tweet or take a picture for Instagram but it feels unlikely that I will ever start filming then editing videos just to update friends on my life. 

At the end of the day, Twitter and Instagram are where I and many others belong. They are the spaces we have been living in for years. I am sure we could tolerate new curtains or a different kitchen table but we all have our limits. What will happen to us when Mosseri and his team do regroup and change Instagram beyond recognition? At least I could find another flat when my landlord moved back in. Where will we go online if our home is taken away from us?

[See also: The problem with Instagram’s new age recognition software]

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