In case you haven’t heard, Instagram announced big changes last week. Soon, you will no longer see the photos on your feed in the order they were posted. Instead, they will be displayed according to a complex set of algorithms determined by your taste, regular interactions and other data they have accumulated on you over the years.
The announcement begins by saying that the average user misses out on 70% of their feed and goes on to promise: ‘To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.’ In other words, while you may still miss out on seeing a large chunk of ‘moments’, Instagram will have now much more control over the portion that you do see.
From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense and will help Facebook claw back some of the $1bn they invested back in April 2012 when they bought the company. The network will become an even more attractive proposition to advertisers as it will be easier to match users to brands. The only real surprise is that it has taken them four years to do it.
This may not be such good news for those of us who enjoy the social aspects of the platform and who use it to do something creative just for the sake of it. For some months, there has been a steep drop-off in engagement, which suggests that they have been tinkering with the formula for a while now.
Predictably the response has been overwhelmingly negative, as it was when Twitter recently introduced similar changes. To date, a petition demanding they be reversed has attracted nearly 200,000 signatures. The reaction has also been quite telling in many cases among those who feel threatened. I have already seen plenty of users trying to limit their losses by begging followers to turn on the post-notification button so they don’t ‘miss out’.
All this fuss has made me reflect on the part we have all played in making this once niche app evolve into the social media giant it is today. I have started to ask myself, have we now got the Instagram we deserve?
In the early days, it was all about the pleasure of sharing and seeing the world through the medium of filtered smartphone images. The photos may not have been of the best quality, but there was an endearing innocence and enthusiasm behind them.
Everyone used the same equipment (a phone) and were noticing things they would never have paid attention to before. Look, a puddle! Wow, an empty tunnel! Through the alchemy of its filters, Instagram was transforming the everyday and the mundane into the sublime (or at least cute).
The adrenaline rush of instant validation fuelled an addiction to photography for millions who had never been interested in it before. Admittedly, for most this only extended to taking photos of their lunch and themselves, but the simplicity and immediacy of it all was exhilarating. Within weeks of signing up, I was completely hooked.
It wasn’t all about sunsets and latte art. Users were (and still are) harnessing the app to do genuinely creative and exciting work, documenting each corner of the globe from every possible angle. It has also helped likeminded people connect with each other and forge lifelong friendships and relationships.
However, for those with only a casual knowledge of the app, it is almost entirely synonymous with the cult of the Selfie. As of today, there are over 275 million images tagged #selfie and it is a firmly embedded part of our society. The never-ending parade of pouting lips and false eyelashes may appear harmless enough, but it also says something about the darker side of Instagram and the narcissistic tendencies it can promote.
You don’t have to be an avid taker of selfies to be narcissistic – it can manifest itself in different ways. Pretentiousness, insincerity and vanity are traits I can’t stand in others so it is hard to admit I have been guilty of all these behaviours since I set up my account in 2012. I have lost count of how many times I indulged in delusions of grandeur about my pictures; complimented stuff I didn’t like; obsessively checked my stats and generally got carried away with my own self-importance. You practically couldn’t fit my head through the door on the two occasions I made the Suggested Users List.
As Instagram has grown, so have the photographic abilities and reputations of its users. The bar for quality is now set extremely high and most successful Instagrammers manage to keep their feet on the ground, but what happens when you start to believe your own hype?
It is barely noticeable at first. Someone starts to attract a lot of attention and the effort of replying to comments becomes too much, then an underlying arrogance creeps in. Unlike Twitter, where every perceived misdemeanour is jumped upon, it is taboo to say anything even mildly critical on Instagram. The relentless positive feedback loop can allow egos to balloon unchecked and the dynamic subtly shifts so that followers become ‘fans’; while captions and statements become increasingly egocentric and self-aggrandising. Add in some corporate sponsorship and before you know it the full effects of Instafame have taken hold. I have seen everything from people launching their own range of merchandise (baseball caps and hoodies anyone?) to turning themselves into a brand (constantly reinforced by self-coined inspirational slogans). We are all responsible for the rise of the Insta Ego Monsters because challenging these behaviours goes entirely against the grain.
Then there are the adverts. I am not talking about the sponsored posts Instagram has been dropping into our feeds. As unwelcome as these are, at least you know one immediately when you see it. I am referring to the homemade ads, the ones that start when a flattering email from a PR company lands in your inbox asking you to promote a product in exchange for some free stuff.
Brands have been quick to cotton onto the power of creating publicity through social media. They can sign up a never-ending stream of eager talent to run campaigns on their behalf at a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional agency. This kind of insidious homespun advertising makes me feel queasy because it is dressed up as something ‘authentic’ and sincere when it is usually nothing of the kind.
Do I begrudge anyone earning money, holidays or gifts from their hobby? Not at all. I am aware that the platform has made a hugely positive impact on people’s lives (mine included) and that the good still far outweighs the bad. It is just that the commercial opportunities have undeniably created the perception of a select group of ‘power-users’ that get invited to all the cool parties and given all the freebies. This fosters an atmosphere of entitlement on one hand and resentment on the other.
It will be interesting to see if the changes reinforce this sense of elitism or if they start to level out the playing field. They may even turn out to be beneficial (and push those homemade ads to the bottom!). If we wean ourselves off our addiction to likes we might decide to take more risks; stop churning out the same crowd-pleasing stuff and take our work in a different direction.
I realise that complaining about things like narcissism and adverts on social media is futile and even naïve. For better or worse, Instagram in 2016 is a heady mixture of the creative, the cringeworthy and the commercial. There is no going back. This only dawned on me fully when someone whose work I have enjoyed and admired for years spent last week marketing shoes for a German sportswear company. I was irritated to see yet another advert but good for him I suppose – his creativity is making him money and he is getting a nice pair of trainers thrown into the bargain.
Instagram’s evolution from quirky photo-sharing app to multi-billion dollar business is now complete. Welcome to the Age of the Algorithm. To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake; you are now a digital content provider competing with millions of other digital content providers to be seen. This is the Instagram we helped to create and this is the Instagram we deserve. It is still great fun, but it is hard to escape the feeling we have lost something along the way.