TikTok Has Instagram on the Ropes
What is going on?
Without a doubt, the biggest story of the summer when it comes to social media is the angst swirling around an app that was once the darling of the social media world: Instagram.
Instagram is facing a number of headwinds. Some of them are self-inflicted wounds, and some of them are market pressures the likes of which it has never seen before. So here they are.
TikTok Gobbling Up Attention
Social media is an attention economy, meaning, those platforms which attract the most eyeballs for the most amount of time will be in the best position for financial success and cultural significance.
Though since before the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok grabbed a cultural foothold in the earliest days of lockdown and has not let up. As of July, TikTok has surpassed Facebook in influencer marketing spending. Instagram is still far ahead of both of those platforms, but that TikTok has seen such tremendous growth in such a short period of time is definitely concerning to Meta, who owns and operates both Facebook and Instagram.
TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2021, and at least one statistic shows that it is the most popular app among children (though YouTube is not included in this data set, which would probably be more popular). Beyond the stats, anyone who pays attention to cultural trends and online content would tell you that TikTok drives culture on- and offline more than any social media platform right now. When is the last time a song or musician exploded because of Instagram? I couldn’t tell you. But I could tell you about at least a dozen songs or musicians or influencers that exploded in popularity because of TikTok. Discoverability is part of the magic of TikTok, and that is largely due to its supercharged recommendation algorithm.
TikTok’s recommendation algorithm is considered among the best on any social media platform by those in the industry, not just users. Recommendation algorithms drive the social internet and they are integral to increasing users’ time-on-platform, which is a key performance indicator for these sites. Basically, recommendation algorithms are the mathematical equations in charge of keeping you interested and scrolling, and TikTok’s is widely regarded as the most effective at doing just that.
Though TikTok has grown significantly both in revenue and cultural clout, it has not yet surpassed Instagram when it comes to daily or monthly active users, which is perhaps the cornerstone metric social media platforms track (along with ad revenue).
However, Meta isn’t made up of a bunch of fools. They can see the writing on the wall, and they’re scrambling to compete for the massive amount of attention TikTok is harvesting. The problem is, they’re trying to become TikTok in order to compete with TikTok.
And it isn’t going well.
Instagram Is Trying to Replace TikTok, and Users Are Unhappy.
Throughout the summer, Instagram users of the normal and high-profile variety have been loudly expressing their concern for how the app has been changing, namely its emphasis on video, the lack of content from actual connections, and ad frequency.
Instagram may not yet be hemorrhaging users (as far as anyone can tell), but sentiment toward the platform is as negative as it has ever been.
Some have dubbed it “InstaAngst.”
If you remember, Kylie Jenner tweeted her frustration toward Snapchat back in 2019 and it drove its stock down by 7% the next day, wiping out over a billion dollars of value.
On July 26th, a day after Jenner’s critical Instagram story, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, posted a video to Instagram and Twitter explaining the various changes that users were seeing on Instagram, and why they were happening. Axios sums up the video like this:
Full-screen experience: "If you’re seeing a new full-screen version of the feed or you're hearing about it, know that it is a test," he said. The idea is that a more full-screen experience — for both photos and videos — he said, “might be a more fun and engaging experience ... But I also want to be clear, it’s not yet good and we’re going to have to get it to a good place if we’re going to ship it to the rest of the Instagram community."
Shift towards video: “I want to be clear, we‘re going to continue to support photos … That said, I need to be honest, I do believe more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time.” Mosseri said this shift is occurring in response to user behavior. "We have to lean into that shift while continuing to support photos"
Recommendations: Mosseri addressed changes to Instagram's feed that includes more recommended content, as opposed to content from users that a person chooses to follow. He said that the company is going to try to get better at post recommendations as he believes "it's an effective and important way to help creators reach more people."
While Mosseri never named TikTok, Meta is clearly trying to make the Instagram experience like the TikTok For You page. Anyone who uses both platforms can see this. It is objectively not good.
I could write an entire newsletter about that July 26th Adam Mosseri video because it was so bad and, I think, clearly shows Instagram’s priorities are very different from their users priorities.
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Here’s a TikTok I saw, actually, that did a good job explaining the issue:
And then, just two days after Mosseri’s video advocating for the changes they were making to Instagram, the company announced they would be walking back some of those changes. Yes, the changes that their leader had just explained and defended like 48 hours before!
Casey Newton reported in his newsletter, Platformer:
“I’m glad we took a risk — if we’re not failing every once in a while, we’re not thinking big enough or bold enough,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said in an interview. “But we definitely need to take a big step back and regroup. When we’ve learned a lot, then we come back with some sort of new idea or iteration. So we’re going to work through that.”
It feels like Instagram is groping around in the dark in search of its identity. Its users know what they want Instagram to be: a place to share photos and sometimes videos with their followers and a place to follow their friends and famous people’s lives communicated in curated photos.
But despite the backlash to all of this, Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook and Instagram users will only begin to see more content from accounts they don’t follow in the coming year. The Verge reported:
Meanwhile, in its effort to compete with TikTok, Meta is rearchitecting Facebook and Instagram to place an emphasis on short videos and posts that its system recommends to people. On a call with analysts, Zuckerberg said that the percentage of content people see in Facebook and Instagram that comes from accounts they don’t follow will more than double next year. Building the AI needed to make that happen is a costly investment, he said.
But Instagram (and its parent company Meta) aren’t concerned about making Instagram what their users want Instagram to be. Instagram and Meta are concerned with taking a very successful app they own and trying to make it the most popular social media app in the world by cloning the one that actually is.
And I wonder if they’re planning Instagram’s funeral in the process.
Meta has always bought their most threatening competitors. They cannot buy TikTok. So they are trying to copy it with a platform they already have. It is not working.
Meta Is Distracted and Revenue Is Down
On top of all of this, Instagram’s parent company Meta is focused more on the future of the social internet in the metaverse than it is on their current issues with Instagram.
For the first time ever, Meta reported a yearly decline in revenue when they reported earnings on July 27th, yes the same time all of that Instagram drama was going on.
The social network reported its first-ever yearly decline in revenue for the second quarter, announcing a 1 percent drop to $28.8 billion, and predicted that growth in the third quarter could fall even more. The overall profit for its parent company, Meta, fell 36 percent to $6.7 billion. The Reality Labs division responsible for building Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse dreams lost $2.8 billion in the quarter.
While the first-ever drop in revenue growth was expected on Wall Street going into Wednesday’s earnings report, it solidifies how challenged Meta’s business has quickly become on all fronts. Apple’s “Ask app not to track” prompt on iPhones has made its ads much less effective, costing Meta $10 billion in ad revenue last year alone. And now a rapidly slowing economy has caused advertisers to pull back on their spending.
Meta is focused on the metaverse, and one has to wonder how this will affect the headwinds and crises facing Instagram in the present.
What happens next? I’m not totally sure. It sounds like Meta will continue to try to make TikTok more like Instagram even as Instagram users use both apps and would prefer the two stay distinct. Zuckerberg suggests that Instagram will continue to become more like TikTok, even as the platform has said it is—at least temporarily—walking back some of its changes.
Last week Pew Research Center published new data on how teens use technology and social media. I think this graph from that research depicts what could be to come in the future:
TikTok is king of everything but YouTube. Instagram is not growing quickly among teenagers and Facebook is totally irrelevant.
Meta is in trouble with the next generation, and I don’t know if trying to keep up with TikTok is the right answer. And the metaverse future in which Meta is investing so much is probably too far away to pull the company out of the hole it’s digging for itself in the present.
Instagram is on the ropes, and one has to wonder if the whole of Meta will be soon, too.
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