Getty; Marianne Ayala/Insider
Instagram is becoming as uncool as Facebook — and it has only itself to blame
Instagram is entering its flop era. Despite launching the influencer economy, which has grown into a $100 billion industry, the social-media platform is struggling to keep up with its new rival, TikTok.
Since its launch in 2010, Instagram’s image-first design has helped attract the vanguard of digital creators, brand ambassadors, and marketers. Sponsorships and product integration, while accidental at first, quickly became an integral part of the platform. It was the place where brands could partner with seemingly regular people to sell prospective customers on a more-ambitious lifestyle, with all the trappings that accompany it. Nearly every marketer surveyed by Shopify in 2021 — a staggering 97% — considered Instagram their most important channel for influencer marketing.
Instagram tailors itself to the crème de la crème of online influencers and creators. And the platform is designed with these top users in mind, tilting the algorithm to make it easy for users to keep up with their favorite personalities and for brands to build huge audiences. The platform even lends direct support and advice to its biggest names, some of which have hundreds of millions of followers. This has helped Instagram grow into an estimated $43 billion ad-revenue machine, according to Insider Intelligence — but that status as a moneymaker is under threat.
Enter: TikTok. In 2016, the competitor entered the market and sent Instagram spiraling. The app’s addictive algorithm and snappy videos captured people’s attention with its focus on spontaneous discovery, keeping users engaged for longer. Surveys by the Pew Research Center found the proportion of teenagers who said they’re on TikTok “almost constantly” was 50% higher than those who said the same about Instagram.
To compete, Instagram launched its own short-form-video feature, Reels, in 2020. But it wasn’t enough. According to data obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Instagram users spend 17.6 million hours a day watching Reels, while people spend an astounding 197.8 million hours a day on TikTok. Now, like Facebook before it, Instagram is becoming less and less relevant and struggling to do anything about it.
Instagram’s trouble lies in the very thing that drove its initial success. Its algorithm is optimized for the users who made the platform popular: influencers. But by focusing on its power users, the platform loses out on engagement by regular people. TikTok’s secret sauce is its ability to keep users on the platform, and without sacrificing its core, Instagram won’t be able to compete.
TikTok’s unrivaled success
In just a few years, TikTok has become an unparalleled success story, growing to more than 1 billion worldwide users in a fraction of the time it took other apps to do so. TikTok’s rate of growth has been roughly double that of its older competitors, partly thanks to timing — the platform launched into a more-mature social-media environment — but also because the app offered users something new.
“TikTok, when it came into the international Western market, was already pretty well established as a short-video platform,” D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds and coauthor of a book on TikTok, told me. “It had been competing with other fairly well-established short-video platforms in China for some time. Some of the strategies that it developed had already been road tested in China. There wasn’t as much of a learning curve that Instagram — and also, to an extent, YouTube — has faced in trying to replicate and compete with some of the things that make TikTok so unique and so appealing to its audiences.”
Specifically, TikTok excels at quickly engaging users and keeping them on the platform. The average user spends as much time on the app every day as the length of an average feature film, according to internal data I’ve seen.
Part of the key to the platform’s success is how it recommends videos. In a recent article on TikTok’s algorithm, the researcher Arvind Narayanan explained that on TikTok, every video had an equal chance of success, whether it was made by an account with 12 followers or an account with 120,000 followers. That means videos on the platform become popular purely based on their entertainment and engagement value, not on the size of the account that posted the video. Because of this, the likelihood of a random person going viral is greater on TikTok than on other platforms. But once a creator hits the viral-video jackpot, it’s challenging to make their popularity stick. That’s because on TikTok, every video a creator makes has to outperform every other TikTok video.
While the never-ending roulette is a boon for TikTok users, who are constantly enthused by the most interesting content, it’s a pain for Instagram, whose users are accustomed to being able to build a following without the whims of an algorithmically dictated feed swapping them out for whoever’s post is more interesting.
Victim of its own success
Unlike TikTok, Instagram has long been seen as a secure place on which to build a digital following. A year ago, when the researcher Valdovinos Kaye was interviewing TikTok creators for his book, he found that they desperately sought to transport their audiences over to Instagram. “There was a little bit more stability there, and they could be a little bit surer that videos they posted would be seen by their followers, as opposed to the gamble dice roll that they were experiencing on TikTok,” he explained.
That’s because Instagram’s algorithm works differently. On Instagram, whom you follow is weighted more heavily in terms of what content you see, meaning it’s easier for larger accounts to grow and maintain their success since they can almost guarantee that anything they post will be served up to their entire audience.
Because of this, Instagram’s cadre of top creators grouse about being penalized whenever the app tries to shift to be more like TikTok. Often, these shifts result in fewer people seeing the posts of big-time creators. Plus, people typically don’t like change. Users who liked the clean, image-centric view of their feeds were annoyed by the intrusion of videos when Reels came along. And the people who have grown their audience on Instagram through photography have become discomfited by the forced pivot to video. Over the summer, the app’s biggest names — including the Kardashians, who collectively have more than 1 billion followers on Instagram — rebelled against the platform’s push to be more like TikTok. But the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, doubled down on the idea that video would be the future, saying the changes were for the good of all users. Despite that, two days later, the app quietly rolled back some changes.
“After the whole Kardashian intervention, it seems to have stopped Instagram becoming a real TikTok clone,” Marcus Bösch, a TikTok researcher and fellow at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, told me.
It’s a catch-22 for Instagram. The thing that gave it early success — its focus on building large, loyal audiences and rewarding users for doing so — has trapped the platform in an outmoded model for serving up content. Making too significant a change could spell disaster for the app, alienating power users and undermining its core business. For now, it is stuck somewhere in between the original Instagram model and a TikTok look-alike, not quite succeeding in either arena.
“Instagram these days is such a weird place,” Bösch told me. He believes Instagram faces an identity crisis between at least three generations of the app: its first iteration, which was largely photo- and feed-based, its second one, which introduced stories, and its third, most recent version, which is focused on Reels.
If it were any other company, that would be enough to count it out of the social-media race. But because of its importance to Meta, its parent company, it’s one of the few companies that is able to — and needs to — continue throwing ideas at the wall. It’s uniquely well resourced to try and find the thing that helps it catch up with, and overtake, TikTok. However, to do that, the app would need to find a solution that kept its restless user base happy.
Part of what made TikTok so successful was that it stood out. It was different in a world where every social-media platform looked the same. Rather than copying TikTok’s success, Instagram might need to focus on what separates it from the pack. Without that, the app will likely be stuck in second place forevermore, unwilling to annoy its creators while unable to make the changes that could keep it competitive.
Chris Stokel-Walker is a tech reporter and author of the book TikTok Boom.