By: Kara MacKenzie
June 9th, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
In an age where social media giants seem to control everything, it is getting harder for independent content creators to support themselves. As algorithms shift and social media sites become more and more similar to each other, users are becoming frustrated and creators are increasingly forced to adapt their content just to keep up.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In January 2013, Vine became the first platform to offer an easy way to create and view short-form video content. Only six months later, Instagram implemented its own (remarkably similar) video player, which was the beginning of Instagram’s copycat reputation. By October 2016, Vine was forced to shut down due to high levels of competition.
That same year, Instagram struck again when they introduced their own version of Snapchat’s Stories. Other social media platforms quickly caught on, and soon enough Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and even LinkedIn were releasing their own versions of the feature. By 2022, Instagram Stories had become more popular than Snapchat, but the social media giant didn’t stop there.
Possibly the most well-known instance of stealing features was Instagram (and later Facebook) Reels, which is a practically undisguised ripoff of TikTok’s scrolling full-screen video feed. TikTok’s CEO, unbothered by the situation, said, “At TikTok we welcome competition … To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on.” However, YouTube also went on to create their own version of the video feature with YouTube Shorts, which has reportedly become even more popular than TikTok as of June 2022, according to Gizmodo.
Even BeReal, which had just begun to gain popularity in early 2022, is now being copied by Instagram and TikTok, who have implemented the same timed dual-camera feature on their own sites. It seems that every social media site now features a news feed, private messaging, stories, live broadcasting and short videos. It is clear that social media apps have no qualms about stealing features from each other, and Instagram is notorious for this.
In their quest to attract as much of TikTok’s audience as possible, Instagram has even begun to copy their algorithm. Instead of their traditional feed, which features mostly photos from friends and family, users’ Instagram feeds are now flooded with ads, recommended posts and Reels.
This is frustrating for many users who signed up specifically to see updates from people that they know. As Christina Alexander writes for Digital Trends, “The TikTok-ification of Instagram takes away the type of content people love most about the platform: photos from friends and family.”
Avery Tyson, a content creator and student at Michigan State University, said that she is extremely frustrated with the changes. “I understand that all platforms are going to have some similarities, but Instagram should be a photo-sharing app. Every single social media platform is copying one another, and it is so annoying.”
Some of the creators who have been most affected by the changes are small business owners and influencers. Social media can be one of the most important ways for creators to advertise their work, something that Katarina Keeley, a photographer and content creator, has experienced firsthand. “Social media is beneficial for any business you’re trying to do, it spreads awareness. I definitely think it’s important.” For Keeley, who does concert photography, Instagram is a crucial way to get her photos noticed by larger audiences.
Unfortunately, creators like Keeley who have used Instagram to support themselves in the past are finding it harder to keep up with new features and changes to the algorithm. The increase in ads and sponsored content means that users are less likely to see posts from influencers that they follow, forcing creators to adapt their content to the algorithm just so they can reach crucial audiences.
A new algorithm that makes it more difficult to get noticed also means that it may be harder for influencers to secure brand deals and make money from Instagram in the first place. “The change will affect the entire ecosystem of businesses,” said Sarah Frier, a journalist for Bloomberg. “The value of an Instagram influencer’s large follower list goes down if those people aren’t as likely to see their content.”
The shift from focusing on still images to prioritizing Instagram Reels has also had an impact on content creators. Many influencers feel they are forced to choose between creating inauthentic, algorithm-driven content or fading into the background. It is harder for an artist to get their photography noticed if they can only advertise it in video form, but if they do not transition to posting Reels then they may experience a huge decline in engagement anyway.
Keeley says that she has recently noticed her Reels gaining popularity, while her photos do not get nearly as much engagement. “The Reels that I do get a lot of traction, more than my photography.” It is clear that Instagram is leaving creators little choice in the content that they put out if they want to remain relevant.
Tyson, who relies on her high Instagram engagement for brand deals and career marketing, has also noticed the effects of this new algorithm, saying “I [am] posting more videos because I need to if I want to grow my brand and keep working with companies.”
In fact, some of the platform’s most followed people have recently spoken out against the changes, sparking a viral movement. On July 23, 2022, 21-year-old photographer and influencer Tati Bruening created a meme and corresponding Change.org petition after becoming frustrated with the amount of Reels and recommended posts on her feed. The meme called for CEO Adam Mosseri to “Make Instagram Instagram Again,” adding that she wanted the platform to “stop trying to be TikTok.”
The meme immediately took off within the photography community, later catching the attention of celebrities like Kylie Jenner, who is the most followed person on Instagram. Jenner, along with her sisters Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, shared the meme, with Jenner commenting “PLEASEEEEEEE.”
The online petition, which was addressed to Instagram and Meta, proceeded to rack up over 300,000 signatures. Titled “Make Instagram Instagram Again,” the petition calls for the platform to go back to its roots, showing users the photos from friends and family that they came to Instagram for in the first place. “It feels wrong to switch the algorithm on creators [who] have made a living and contributed to the community, forcing them to change their entire content direction and lifestyle to serve a new algorithm,” the petition reads. “Listen to the community. Take our thoughts and requests into consideration!”
Tyson also thinks that Instagram should stop trying to be something it’s not. “People joined Instagram because it is a photo-sharing app, not because it’s a video-sharing app,” she said. “We want to share still images while being pushed to share reels, and … I think it ruins the point of having multiple platforms. [The point of] having different platforms is to show different content, not the exact same content a thousand different ways.”
Keeley agrees. “I hope that photos don’t go extinct,” she said, adding that users and creators should be able to use social media sites in whatever way makes them comfortable.
Clearly, neither consumers nor influencers are happy with the changes, and it is easy to see why we need to Make Instagram, Instagram Again.
Kara MacKenzie is currently a senior studying professional & public writing and women’s & gender studies. She is interested in the intersections between rhetoric and social justice, and hopes to one day use her communications skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In her personal life, she is an intramural volleyball player, plant mom, artist and avid reader.