By Clare Duffy and Jennifer Korn, CNN Business
Tati Bruening was once the textbook example of an Instagram user. Since the pandemic, she has been building her career as a photographer on the platform and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers in the process. But recently, her relationship with Instagram started to change.
On Monday, Bruening shared a post on the platform calling to “Make Instagram Instagram again.” She told CNN Business that she was scrolling the app and felt frustrated by the lack of content she was seeing from accounts she followed in the wake of recent updates prioritizing recommended posts and videos from its Reels product.
“I was seeing a post from my friend underneath three Reels 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.”
Her post blew up. By Tuesday morning, it had more than 1.7 million likes, thanks in part to shares by 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 Instagr am, with 360 million and 326 million followers, respectively, and their opinions carry big weight in the world of social media. A February 2018 tweet from Jenner criticizing a Snapchat redesign was credited with wiping out $1.3 billion from the company’s value in a week.
The attention to Bruening’s post reflects the growing backlash against recent updates to the Instagram platform, which boast more than 1 billion users. To beat back the competitive threat of TikTok — whose discovery algorithm is viewed as its great competitive advantage — Instagram has started showing users a much greater proportion of recommended content from accounts that they don’t follow versus posts from their friends. It has also prioritized video content over the photos it is known for. The platform has been testing showing full-screen posts, much like TikTok, as well.
The issue has arguably been brewing 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 pigeonholes users into certain content categories (such as recipes or relationship advice) in a way that sometimes seems to disregard whether they actually follow such accounts.
The latest dust-up around Instagram comes at a fragile time for parent company Meta. The company is grappling with an aging and stagnating user base on its flagship Facebook platform, and Instagram is largely seen as the best bet of its family of apps to maintain and grow the crucial younger audience. But Meta, like many older players in the social media world, is facing steep competition from TikTok and is fighting to gain traction in its attempts to copy it. While Instagram users are somewhat more likely to open the app daily, TikTok users spend an average of about 45 more minutes per day on the app than people do on Instagram, according to a report from research firm Sensor Tower for the second quarter of 2022. In a February call with Wall Street analysts, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Instagram Reels “face a competitor in TikTok that is a lot bigger, so it will take a while to … catch up there.”
At the same time, Meta is relying on profits from Instagram and its other apps to help fund its investment in building a future version of the internet it calls the “metaverse.” And the company, which is set to report second quarter earnings on Wednesday, may see a slowdown in spending on ads, its core business, amid rising inflation and recession fears.
Meta’s stock fell nearly 3% Tuesday after the growing backlash from the Kardashians and others.
“The problem for Meta is that nothing is good right now,” said D.A. Davidson analyst Tom Forte. “Instagram is meant to be the Meta asset to exploit, to address the younger market, so it’s natural to me that they’re using Instagram as the way 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 with its version of the feature than Snapchat did. But its efforts to copy TikTok with Reels have arguably proven to be 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 will share a still photo set to music as a Reel in an effort to rank higher on the platform. Instagram, for its part, has been trying to incentivize users to make original Reels, with creator fund programs and by featuring them prominently in-feed. The company is now also testing sharing all videos shorter than 15 minutes as Reels.
To be sure, Instagram is not the only platform prioritizing video and recommended content as it seeks to keep up with TikTok, which last year surpassed 1 billion monthly active users. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have all also taken steps in that direction.
“The viewpoint is that this is like mobile, meaning it’s an evolutionary change in consumption on the internet,” Forte said. “What choice does Facebook have? It would be nearly impossible to buy TikTok, which was the old playbook, so now they have to try to innovate.”
For creators like Breuning who built their livelihoods on Instagram, the changes feel especially painful, given its origin as a photo app that catered to artists and photographers.
“It feels wrong to switch the algorithm on creators that have made a living and contributed to the community, forcing them to change their entire content direction and lifestyle to serve a new algorithm,” Bruening wrote in a change.org petition calling on Instagram to “Stop trying to be TikTok!” It has garnered more than 150,000 signatures in four days.
Instagram did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. However, Instagram head Adam Mosseri addressed the criticism in a video post on the platform Tuesday.
“We’re experimenting with a number of different changes to the app and so we’re hearing a lot of concerns from all of you,” he said, acknowledging complaints about the shift to video and the increase in recommended content. “We’re going to continue to support photos, they’re part of our heritage. … That said, I need to be honest: I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time.”
Mosseri continued: “If you look at what people share on Instagram, that’s shifting more and more to videos over time. If you look at what people like and consume and view on Instagram, that’s also shifting more and more to video over time, even if we’re not changing anything. So we’re going to have to lean into that shift while continuing to support photos.”
Mosseri also warned that the full screen video feature test is “not yet good” and has only rolled out to a small percentage of users. And he pointed to the option Instagram launched earlier this year for users to toggle the platform to a chronological feed of posts from only accounts they follow.
But that explanation wasn’t enough to silence the criticisms. Some users sounded off in the comments about feeling like they had no choice but to start making more videos if they wanted the platform’s algorithm to surface their content. Others suggested that if the platform became too much like TikTok, they’d be inclined to simply pick one of the apps to use rather than both.
“People do VIDEOS because we have no reach on our photos!!” fashion creator Alina Tanasa (@fabmusealina) said in a comment on Mosseri’s video. “As a content creator I need and want each and with photos you cut all the reach and you promote only videos. So it’s not us, it’s you that are changing everything and are afraid of TikTok.”
Makeup influencer James Charles, who has nearly 23 million Instagram followers, added in a comment: “I understand that every business has to evolve, compete, and please investors, but Instagram is losing the competition and has lost its identity along the way. … We’re upset because we CARE about this app and the communities we’ve been able to create/join on here, but I’m genuinely worried that if something doesn’t change, there will be no community left.”
If there’s a silver lining for Instagram, however, it’s that there are few other photo-first apps out there, making it easier to criticize Instagram than leave it, especially for those who have built a life and a livelihood on it.
“Me personally,” Breuning said, “I love Instagram and I don’t plan on leaving Instagram anytime soon.”
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