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10 August 2022

The real problem with Instagram is not the photo vs video debate

This narrow binary between glossy, aesthetic photos or TikTok-style video overlooks a crucial, broader change in our digital habits.

By Sarah Manavis

In 2019 I had an almost entirely positive relationship with Instagram. I was on it for roughly 35 minutes a day, mostly looking at accounts that were either people I knew personally or posted content that made me feel good: local shops, architecture brands, celebrities and designers I admired. I posted pictures of my work, my dog, my boyfriend, sometimes myself; things I was cooking, books I had read. As someone who writes about tech companies and the ill-effects of the internet, I knew Instagram had problems – but, in spite of this, I liked it (especially in comparison to every other platform). Most people I knew felt the same way too.

But since late 2020, Instagram has been tweaking its functionality, changing its design and algorithm to prioritise video over pictures. This shift in focus seems to be a bid to imitate TikTok, which has sharply risen in popularity during the same period. Instagram feeds have gradually filled with blaring video, alongside more ads and “suggested posts” from accounts that users have never followed. The platform is no longer the much-loved home of aesthetically pleasing, personally curated content. These changes have led to complaints that the app is unusable, and when, last month, a new, TikTok-style look was rolled out, it attracted such a backlash that Instagram reversed the changes within days.

Since this PR disaster, a debate has ensued about what Instagram should look like. The debate is primarily over whether users want content – largely photographs – from the people they know, or posts – mainly TikTok-style videos – from accounts that have been algorithmically deemed as relevant to them. But this narrow binary overlooks a crucial, broader change in our digital habits. In 2022 users want a very different relationship with Instagram from the one the platform wants to encourage.

A major point that has been forgotten in the Instagram debate is that the platform has introduced these dramatic changes at a time of peak social-media malaise. While the pandemic forced us into being “more online than ever”, successive lockdowns bred a desperation to communicate in person instead of via a screen. At the same time, many were coming to the conclusion that spending too much time on social media was a guaranteed way to increase anxiety and personal dissatisfaction, and choosing to limit time spent on their phones.

A reduction in screen time has been one of the benefits of post-lockdown life, as time online is balanced with offline activities, as it was in 2019. There have been complaints from influencers and users of reduced engagement on posts, and while this can partly be attributed to Instagram’s pivot to video, it may also be because we’ve spent the past six months correcting for the preceding 18 months, in which we had next to no entertainment options beyond our screens.

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Spending lots of time online doesn’t correspond directly with enjoying time online. In fact, for many the reverse is true. Often we reach for our phones out of habit, even if we’d rather not, and even if we feel worse for it. My Instagram usage has risen since the pandemic to more than an hour a day – not because I enjoy it, but because there is more potential for endless scrolling with strangers’ “Reels” (videos) than there is with a limited set of photographs, especially when Reels are served to me more than any other type of content. This is the most time I have spent on the app per day since I downloaded it ten years ago – and I’m not alone: the number of minutes the average user spends on Instagram in 2022 has doubled since 2019.

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Yet I now have a far worse relationship with the platform than I once did, and view the time I spend on it far less favourably. But when Instagram looks at my data, it sees a much simpler story: in the attention economy, more time spent on Instagram must mean Instagram is a better app, a fallacy they appear to be using to shape what the platform looks like going forward.

Instagram’s obsession with keeping users on its app for as long as possible misunderstands what people want from social media in 2022: to consume the content they enjoy in moderation. Users want social media that complements their offline life, rather than social media that drags them away from it. By driving users towards content they feel, at best, apathetic towards in the hope of increasing the time they spend on the app, Instagram is throwing away the content that people itched to open it for.

This is a risk. Heritage social-media apps aren’t forever, as the parent company Meta should know: Facebook is on track to lose more users than it gains this year for the first time. With an increasing number of platforms to choose from, many people are choosing to abandon platforms they’ve been using for years. Though the numbers may show that people are using Instagram more than ever before, there could be a mass exodus in the app’s near future.

[See also: If Adam Mosseri wants to change Instagram, there is nothing we can do about it]

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