Nation/World

Instagram knows you don’t like its changes. It’s not ready to back off yet.

In recent years, Instagram has rolled out a flurry of updates as it has sought to become an e-commerce powerhouse, messaging app, and, last summer, a short-form video discovery platform, along the lines of TikTok.

Now this public identity crisis is bleeding into its user base.

On Tuesday morning, Instagram head Adam Mosseri appeared in full damage-control mode. Facing the camera and wearing a bright yellow sweater, he attempted to quash a growing revolt from some of Instagram’s most prominent users.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian and other high-profile influencers shared a black-and-white graphic declaring: “Make Instagram Instagram again. (Stop trying to be TikTok I just want to see cute photos of my friends.) Sincerely, everyone.”

The original post, created by a 21-year-old Instagram influencer named Tatiana Bruening, amassed more than 1.9 million likes as of Wednesday morning.

In a video posted to his Instagram account, Mosseri acknowledged the app was in transition, but clarified that some things users might encounter, like a full-screen feed, were just tests.

“There’s a lot going on on Instagram right now,” he said. “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.”

Adam Mosseri

But the quick succession of new features and tests has left even its most loyal users wondering if even Instagram knows what Instagram is for.

“Instagram has become overcrowded with so many different types of content happening at the same time,” Bruening said. “Everyone has been feeling the same thing at the same time but a lot of people have been too afraid to say anything.”

A Change.org petition started by Bruening seeks to undo many changes to the app, including bringing back a chronological timeline, prioritizing photo posts, removing the Reels video tool and downplaying algorithmic discovery. As of Wednesday morning it had more than 180,000 signatures.

While Instagram - which boasts roughly 1 billion monthly active users as of 2021 - still exceeds TikTok’s base, it faces an increasing threat as use of the short-form video app has skyrocketed. In 2020, TikTok became the most-downloaded app in the world and its young user base began spending more time on it than Instagram and Facebook. Instagram parent company Meta’s earnings report, set to be released Wednesday, will show whether TikTok has eaten into its market share.

Instagram declined to comment, referring The Washington Post to Mosseri’s video.

The backlash against Instagram has spilled into the offline world. Last Saturday, several dozen content creators picketed outside the company’s New York headquarters to protest its community guidelines - which they say are too restrictive - and changes that make discovering new accounts difficult.

“I think the reason I and so many other people care about this so much is that we want so badly to be tech Utopianists,” said Ana, a 24-year-old content creator who organized the protest and spoke on the condition that only her first name is used, citing privacy concerns.

She read out a list of demands before she and two other meme account administrators temporarily handcuffed themselves to Instagram’s office doors in an act of protest. “We demand that artists, creators, and activists who monetize via this app are protected and have real support systems with real moderators to help users,” she shouted. “We need to make the platform work for the people who keep it alive.”

But users are notoriously fickle, and complaints often don’t align with their behavior. While some Instagram users claim that they want to see more photo-based posts in their feed, Mosseri said users are posting less of this content, choosing instead to share pictures to their Stories or through direct messages.

And none of the changes endorsed by Bruening are likely to restore Instagram to what it once was, experts on the platform said.

“I guarantee that every single person who liked and shared that post about bringing Instagram back to what it was, would spend way less time on Instagram if it reverted back to how it used to be,” said Tommy Marcus, a content creator in Brooklyn who has nearly 1 million followers on the platform.

Sarah Chappell, an online business strategist and creator coach in New York City, said the outcry reflects a broad understanding among power users that the app isn’t meeting their needs, whether they’re content creators, small businesses, or average account-holders.

“There’s just a level of eroded trust at this point, where people aren’t willing to invest their energy or labor into whatever Meta is testing this week,” she said. “Instagram is trying to be too many different things and the constant need they feel to take from other apps leads to ongoing confusion for creators and consumers, and confusion does not lead to adoption.”

But the company is aiming to move closer to the entertainment industry. Instagram owner Meta is forming an advisory board composed of top entertainment executives, managers and publicists, according to a person familiar with the subject who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The effort has been in the works for over a year, but outreach to prospective members of the board began this week. The board will not advise on specific product changes, but will instead focus on how Meta can work more closely with the entertainment industry.

And some analysts say Instagram’s plans could still be vindicated, since only the platform has the numbers to see what is and isn’t working. “Often we end up begrudgingly admitting that the company was right,” said Rex Woodbury, a partner at Index Ventures, a venture capital firm.

Brent Thill, an internet analyst at Jefferies, said Silicon Valley’s “innovate or die mantra” requires Instagram to continue to ship new features. “They’re saying it sucks out of the gate, but it’s going to get better. That’s how products work in tech, we’re going through a series of iterations,” Thill said.

To some observers, the fact that Instagram is working so hard to upend its core function of connecting with friends and family speaks to how drastically social media has changed. “Making that content harder to access shows the competitive landscape they’re in right now,” said Matt Perault, director of the Center on Technology Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It might be totally necessary that they pivot but that doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed in this new world.”

To ride out the storm, Instagram will have to listen to the right voices and navigate the backlash from either side. “There’s a war between people who want Instagram to be more like Snapchat and people who want it to be more TikTok,” Woodbury said, “Right now the former group is larger and louder.”

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