On Monday, Bruening shared a post on the platform calling for “make Instagram back to Instagram.” She told CNN Business that she scrolled through the app and felt frustrated by the lack of content she saw from accounts she followed in the wake of recent updates that prioritized recommended posts and videos from the Reels product.
“I saw a post from my friend under three roles and a recommended post that was six days old,” she said. As she put it in her post, “Stop trying to be TikTok, I just want to see cute photos of my friends.”
Your post blew up. As of Tuesday morning, it had more than 1.7 million likes, thanks in part to shares from two of the most influential figures on the platform: Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. The famous half-sisters are among the most followed accounts on Instagram, with 360 million and 326 million followers respectively, and their opinions weigh heavily in the social media world. A February 2018 tweet by Jenner criticizing a Snapchat redesign was credited with wiping $1.3 billion from the company’s worth in a week.
The attention paid to Bruening’s post reflects the growing backlash over recent updates to the Instagram platform, which has more than 1 billion users. To stave off the competitive threat posed by TikTok — whose discovery algorithm is seen as a major competitive advantage — Instagram has started showing users a much larger proportion of recommended content from accounts they don’t follow, compared to posts from their friends. It has also prioritized video content over the photos it is known for. The platform has been running tests showing posts in full-screen mode, similar to TikTok.
The topic has probably been smoldering for years. Since 2020, the company has been experimenting with showing users more “suggested posts” in their feeds. Recommended content and ads now make up a significant portion of the Instagram feed, which often categorizes users into specific content categories (like recipes or relationship advice) in a way that sometimes seems to ignore whether they actually follow such accounts.
The latest dust cloud surrounding Instagram comes at a fragile time for parent company Meta. The company is struggling with an aging and stagnant user base on its flagship platform, Facebook, and Instagram is widely viewed as the best choice of its family of apps for retaining and growing that crucial younger audience. But Meta, like many older players in the social media world, faces stiff competition from TikTok and is struggling to gain ground in its attempts to copy it. While Instagram users are slightly more likely to open the app daily, TikTok users spend an average of about 45 more minutes per day on the app than people on Instagram, according to a report by research firm Sensor Tower for the second quarter of 2022. In a February conversation with Wall Street analysts, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Instagram Reels “faces a competitor in TikTok that’s a lot bigger, so it’s going to be a while before … catching up there.”
At the same time, Meta is relying on profits from Instagram and its other apps to fund its investment in building a future version of the internet it’s calling “Metaverse.” And the company, which is due to report second-quarter results on Wednesday, could see spending on ads, its core business, slowing amid rising inflation and recession fears.
Meta’s shares fell nearly 3% on Tuesday after mounting backlash from the Kardashians and others.
“The problem for meta is that nothing is good right now,” said DA Davidson analyst Tom Forte. “Instagram is meant to be the meta-asset to be exploited to appeal to the younger market, so it’s natural to me that they use Instagram as a vehicle to respond to the competitive threat of TikTok.”
Meta has run this playbook before. In 2016, months before Snapchat’s parent company made its Wall Street debut, Instagram copied one of the messaging app’s signature features, Stories. Instagram soon reached more users than Snapchat with its version of the feature. But his efforts to copy TikTok with Reels have arguably proved more difficult.
Many have pointed out that videos on Reels are often just old TikTok videos — sometimes shared weeks after they first went viral on TikTok, and occasionally with the TikTok logo still attached. In some cases, users share a still image with music as a reel to rank higher on the platform. For its part, Instagram has tried to encourage users to create original reels, with grant programs for creators and by featuring them prominently in the feed. The company is also now testing the sharing of all videos shorter than 15 minutes as reels.
Of course, Instagram isn’t the only platform prioritizing videos and recommended content as it tries to keep up with TikTok, which surpassed 1 billion monthly active users last year. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have also taken steps in this direction.
“The point of view is that this is like mobile, which means it’s an evolutionary shift in consumption on the internet,” Forte said. “What choice does Facebook have? It would be almost impossible to buy TikTok, the old playbook, so now they have to try to innovate.”
For creators like Breuning, who have made their livings on Instagram, the changes feel particularly painful, as it was originally intended as a photography app for artists and photographers.
“It feels wrong to switch the algorithm to creators who have made a living and contributed to the community and force them to change their entire content direction and lifestyle to serve a new algorithm,” Bruening wrote in one change.org petition calling on Instagram to “Stop trying to be TikTok!” It collected more than 150,000 signatures in four days.
Instagram did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. However, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri responded to the criticism in a video post on the platform on Tuesday.
“We’re experimenting with a number of different changes to the app, so we’re hearing a lot of concerns from all of you,” he said, acknowledging complaints about the move to video and the increase in recommended content. “We will continue to support photos, they are part of our heritage. … Still, I have to be honest: I believe that as time goes on, more and more of Instagram will become videos.”
Mosseri continued, “If you look at what people are sharing on Instagram, over time that’s shifting more and more to video. If you look at what people are liking and consuming and watching on Instagram, it’s actually shifting more and more to videos over time if we don’t change anything. So we need to lean on this shift while still supporting photos.
Mosseri also warned that the full-screen video feature test is “not good yet” and has only been rolled out to a small percentage of users. And he pointed to the option Instagram rolled out earlier this year to let users switch the platform to a chronological feed with posts from only accounts they follow.
But that explanation wasn’t enough to silence the criticism. Some users stated in the comments that they felt they had no choice but to create more videos if they wanted the platform’s algorithm to uncover their content. Others suggested that if the platform became too similar to TikTok, they would tend to just pick one of the apps instead of using both.
“People make VIDEOS because we don’t have a reach on our photos!!” said fashion designer Alina Tanasa (@fabmusealina) in a comment on Mosseri’s video. “As a content creator I need and want everyone and with photos you cut off all the reach and only promote videos. So it’s not us, it’s you that’s changing everything and afraid of TikTok.”
Makeup influencer James Charles, who has nearly 23 million Instagram followers, added in a comment, “I understand every business needs to evolve, compete and please investors, but Instagram loses the competition while having its identity lost. .. We’re upset because we CARE about this app and the communities we’ve been able to create/join here, but I’m really worried that if nothing changes, there won’t be a community anymore.”
If there’s a silver lining for Instagram, though, it’s that there are few other photo-first apps that make it easier to critique Instagram than it is to leave, especially for those who make a living and a living on it have built up.
“Personally,” Breuning said, “I love Instagram and I don’t intend to leave Instagram anytime soon.”