‘Stop trying to be TikTok’: how video-centric Instagram sparked a revolt

Loyal users and Kardashians forced social network to partially retreat by demanding renewed emphasis on photo-sharing

If you’re going to change a social media platform synonymous with celebrity culture, make sure the Kardashian-Jenners are onboard first.

Instagram was forced into a partial retreat last week as influencer royalty joined a user rebellion against the app, driven by complaints that it had become too video-centric and was pushing content from accounts that people did not follow.

Kylie Jenner and her sister Kim Kardashian – who each have more than 300 million Instagram followers – echoed the concerns of hundreds of thousands of others when they shared a post demanding “Make Instagram Instagram again”.

The core accusation was that Instagram was mimicking its arch-rival TikTok at the expense of a loyal user base that wanted renewed emphasis on its photo-sharing origins. The original post by the US photographer Tati Bruening, added: “Stop trying to be TikTok I just want to see cute photos of my friends.” A “save Instagram” petition set up by Bruening has gathered more than 275,000 signatures.

Chinese-owned TikTok has shaken the social media establishment. The social video app has raced to more than 1 billion users worldwide to put it on a par with Instagram, itself a former upstart that galvanised the competition so much that Mark Zuckerberg bought it.

Instagram’s head, Adam Mosseri, announced last week that the app would row back some of the changes that had sparked the revolt. “I’m glad we took a risk – if we’re not failing every once in a while, we’re not thinking big enough or bold enough,” he said in an interview with the tech newsletter Platformer. “But we definitely need to take a big step back and regroup.”

It is not just influencers who had been complaining but also people who use the platform to interact with friends and family. “It’s not a good redesign. I refuse to scroll down my feed now because I see more videos of pages I don’t follow instead of my own family and friends,” said Erika Cazares, a project management company owner from Texas.

Instagram has been trying out a number of changes including increasing the amount of videos in users’ main feed, introducing a full-screen mode for viewing posts and pushing more videos from accounts a user does not follow. In one permanent change announced last week, all videos posted on Instagram will become “Reels”, Instagram’s TikTok-style video feature.

Mosseri said Instagram would reduce the amount of videos being pushed towards users from accounts they do not follow and would stop trialling a full-screen mode for viewing posts.

Vex King, a self-help author based in the UK, said Instagram needed to do more to satisfy users. King said he owed his success to Instagram – his literary agent found him on the app. But he is one of many users who took to the platform last week to bemoan how it had changed. Wing said his reach – measured in likes from his 1.2 million followers – had dropped sharply since Instagram started tinkering this year.

“The majority of users I’ve spoken to would like photos to be the priority, want better support, a default chronological feed and an algorithm that serves them better,” he said. “I suppose this rollback is a step in the right direction because it means they’re attentive and they’re listening, but they would still need to do more. They could even consider creating a separate reels app to rival TikTok if that’s what they want to do.”

Instagram was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger as a photo-sharing app, a home for the millions of snaps people were taking on their camera-toting smartphones. It grew rapidly, from 1 million users in two months to 10 million within a year, prompting Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook to buy it for $1bn in 2012. It shaped celebrity culture, drawing legions of users as it became as ubiquitous as its Insta abbreviation.

Shortly before announcing the pullback, Mosseri said in a video post on Instagram that the world was changing and Instagram needed to change with it. “I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time.”

Instagram’s parent company, Meta, pointed to a short-video future last week when it reported a 30% increase in time spent on Reels across Instagram and Facebook.

Last week Instagram’s sister app Facebook also announced a radical redesign, similarly focused on driving users to algorithmically curated selections of posts from strangers, and away from content shared by their friends. “Our discovery engine will recommend the content we think you’ll care most about,” said Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook and Meta.

Users who did not like the algorithm changes might need to brace themselves. Zuckerberg said the amount of recommended content on people’s Instagram and Facebook feeds from accounts they do not follow would double from 15% currently to 30% by the end of next year.

Experts say Zuckerberg, who is also making a major strategic push into the virtual world of the “metaverse”, will not backtrack.

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“Make no mistake, this is a regroup not a walk back. Meta is clear that its future is the metaverse and short-form video. And the latter means that Instagram wants to be like TikTok,” said Mike Proulx, a research director at the analysis firm Forrester.

Instagram and Facebook fear that what many users want is an experience more like that provided by TikTok. According to research from SimilarWeb, the video-sharing app far outpaces Instagram in downloads, and among 18- to 34-year-olds it also beats Facebook. TikTok has a very different approach from “old Instagram”, with its algorithmically powered “for you” page pulling in content from users all around the service, rather than focusing on friends and other followers.

But TikTok’s difference is not just one of form. Unlike Instagram and Facebook, the app has always been more about consuming content than connecting with friends – and in their haste, some fear Zuckerberg and Mosseri have forgotten that.

“Meta seems to have correctly identified what people like about TikTok,” said Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter about internet culture. “Short-form videos, remixable video and audio-editing tools that works on mobile, and creators that make stuff rather than influence things – but they’re still trying to jam those features into an ecosystem that wasn’t built for them.”


Dan Milmo and Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

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