Remember when Instagram was just a 1:1 aspect ratio photo-sharing app that came with a few good filters? This simple platform quickly grew to be the platform of choice for many creatives and young people. It prioritized craft and quality, and felt more genuine than its competitor Facebook. Instagram is, of course, a tech business, so I won’t over hype them, but there was something that drew us first in.
When I started HerHelloWorld in 2018, I very specifically chose Instagram as a platform over other social platforms like Twitter or YouTube for two main reasons: 1. I was looking for a mix of photo and text content creation 2. I wanted to be on the platform where my target audience, people early to middle of their education + careers, particularly women and less represented communities, spent their time.
Two years on, Instagram is a battleground of features and algorithm changes. It has a very different feel to what it once did. If we look back two years in Instagram’s history (and amusingly just two weeks before I started HerHelloWorld), one very big thing happened: the founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, stepped down from the company. At the time, it was seen as the end of pseudo-independence from Facebook. I had my suspicions at the time on how Instagram would transform and now looking at what Instagram has become, those suspicions have been confirmed.
Instagram is showing strong signs of following Facebook’s trajectory: as a user, the content is becoming a series of ads; as a creator, it is an endless endurance race + obstacle course to simply be seen; and as a software engineer, there are signs of rushed development pushed by executives to hit KPIs and keep up with competitors by any means necessary. Take a look at some of the other moves they’ve made to keep up with competitors over the years.
All of this culminates in people becoming disinterested and moving onto the next platform. It is being Facebooked.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t still a healthy community of creators and users, but it does mean that competitors like TikTok have an opportunity to fill the role in the social market that Instagram once filled for Facebook by becoming the cooler, more genuine platform for users. Plus, as a creator, it is amazing to see TikTok recognize and support some creators through the Creators Fund.
Forced to Use a Competitor
Despite this, I watched the rise of TikTok as an outsider for a long time. I felt attached to Instagram and the community I had fostered there. Plus, I didn’t want to get distracted by another platform (especially one I had been warned was quite addictive by friends 😂).
It wasn’t until Instagram came out with Reels that I finally HAD to get a TikTok.
Why was I forced to go onto a competitor’s platform? Quite simply because the feature was laden with bugs on Android. It became basically unusable to the point where I had zero trust that I would be able to successfully create a Reel.
I gave it my best shot, but it took me 3 Reels before I gave up and downloaded TikTok. A 30 second Reel would take me, no joke, multiple hours to make. It wasn’t because I was doing anything spectacular in the videos, it was because at almost every step there was a bug.
Here are just a few examples I ran across:
- If you resized the text element after completing the initial entry then the text became distorted and skewed. It is only after you post it that you saw this bug, so it is too late to fix and you have to start over.
- Saving to a draft didn’t work, so that time invested to create it ahead of time to share it at the “optimum time” was wasted and your content is delayed because you have to start over.
- Instagram crashed several times at random stages of creation which meant that all work was lost.
- Instagram even managed to crash my entire phone. My phone got progressively slower until the phone was forced to restart.
Reels felt rushed – I find it hard to believe that it was shipped without Facebook knowing about these bugs. At the same time, they altered the algorithm to shift engagement to Reels thereby heavily encouraging people to use their not-quite-ready tech to compete for their existing audience.
Their decision to ship like this puts an unnecessary strain on creators who are providing their platform free content to show their ads amongst.
So, I started using TikTok to create my Reels – the software was just better and easier to use. Given I was creating the content on TikTok, it made sense to post it publicly and build a TikTok account simultaneously. Plus, with it becoming an increasingly popular platform for my target audience, there was a big benefit in creating an account.
It took me 9 videos to create one that took me from 50 followers to 1000 in one day with over 43k views at the time of writing. On TikTok that is just a common jump. Conversely, that level of discoverability and reach is hard to produce on Instagram, especially as a new account.
I started seeing videos on TikTok and even discussions on LinkedIn about how to grow your audience on Instagram, Reels hacks, tips for the ever-changing algorithm, and jokes about the endless struggle to reach anyone and get engagement despite trying all these things. The common advice to get growth you need to post at least 3 feed posts and 3 Reels a week, plus 10 stories a day.
A platform demanding that much content creation using a feature that increases creation time for such little returns leads to creator burnout. You lose genuine, quality content in a rush to produce anything to stay relevant to the algorithm.
The Scaled Impact
The control Instagram has over the world can be scary, and one of the ways it exercises its control is through the powerful, yet elusive algorithm. It manipulates weightings on engagement to reach those KPIs while sacrificing the very craft and art that made the platform popular. Each time they bring out new features, the demands to even reach those already following you increases. These algorithm changes have real world impacts on the content and the creators.
Instagram isn’t alone in this. You can see similar examples on YouTube as a result to changes in their monetization policy. Initially they restricted mid-roll ads to videos that are at least 10 minutes long which led to a massive increase in videos being 10 minutes long, and at times having content stretched out, to hit the threshold.
More recently, YouTube changed this policy allowing videos of 8 minutes to enable mid-roll ads and will automatically enable them for existing eligible videos, even those that previously opted out of ads (they can be turned off later).
As you can read here, the reason behind this move could be due to their advertising rates dropping nearly “50% since the beginning of February”. YouTube is looking to regain ground by increasing their content inventory to insert ads within and attract creators who bring viewers to the platform.
Music streaming platforms have even explicitly recognized the massive impact they have on the industry – Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said:
Some creators find success in this high-volume strategy, but many others find that it isn’t a sustainable model for their sector. This is especially true when streaming services pay such low royalties per stream, or in Instagram’s case, supply engagement per post.
Are we okay having platforms who chase after KPIs and ad revenue define and control what quality and success mean for other industries? Is “continuous engagement” really the key metric we should be aspiring to - and what gems would we lose if we were to retroactively apply this gate?
Watching the evolution of Instagram through the lens of a user, creator, and software engineer has been an interesting use case. It is another reminder of the massive sway that technology and a few well-placed decision makers can have on industries and people’s lives. We should be asking ourselves how an algorithm change is going to affect everybody and whether that change is for the better.
And please, stop shipping code that isn’t ready. Ty 🥰