I remember a time in my early uni days, maybe even late sixth form years, where the use of Facebook completely disappeared for young people and all that was left was the convenience of Messenger. We are now seeing a similar thing happen to Instagram. 

Despite having grown into a $100 billion industry, the social-media platform is struggling to keep up with its new rival, TikTok.  Upon its conception in 2010, Instagram 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.

However, its tone has now changed. Instagram tailors itself to the crème de la crème of online influencers and creators. As a result, the platform is designed with these top users in mind, tilting the algorithm to make it easy for users to keep up with their favourite personalities and for brands to build huge audiences. 

This has helped Instagram grow into an estimated $43 billion ad-revenue machine. Nevertheless, this status is now under threat. For example, a Research Center study found the proportion of teenagers who said they’re on TikTok “almost constantly” was 50% higher than those who said the same about Instagram.

The beginning of Instagram ‘keep-up’ efforts started in the 2020 pandemic when Instagram launched its own short-form-video feature, Reels. 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. 

Therefore, the true issue is that where TikTok prioritises influencers and real people, Instagram only prioritises the creme de la creme. And because its algorithm is optimised for the users who made the platform popular, the platform loses out on engagement by regular people.

Another element that plays a factor is how rapidly TikTok rose to the top. TikTok grew to more than 1 billion worldwide users in a fraction of the time it took other apps, namely Instagram, 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. Giving everyday people the chance to go viral plays a huge part here. 

Furthermore, the average user spends as much time on the app every day as the length of an average feature film. Crazy. 

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. 

However, this can pose challenges for creators. 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. 

For example, I made a video that hit 1.3 million views three weeks ago but my average videos receive 2,000 with the odd one reaching over 150k. You just can’t predict it. For context, I have 30k followers on TikTok but on Instagram I have 13.5k followers and my Reels get an average of 6,000 views. So there’s pros and cons. This proves that 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 sure 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 penalised whenever the app tries to shift to be more like TikTok (*cough Kyle Jenner*). 

On one hand though, I do understand. If things are working well for you as a creator you’re unlikely to want to see it change. So naturally, users who liked the clean, image-centric view of their feeds were annoyed by the intrusion of videos when Reels came along. Many creators who have grown their audience on Instagram through photography have become discomfited by the forced pivot to video

head of Instagram. Despite the complaints, 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. Two days after the announcement, however, some of the changes were rolled back. 

This limbo really poses a catch-22 threat for Instagram. 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. 

It should also be noted that Instagram’s part as a family member of Meta has greatly saved its arse. 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.

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