Instagram, which started out as a minimalist photo-sharing app, has evolved into “the kind of overstuffed web portal it was invented to subvert,” according to Ryan Broderick, a podcaster and writer who focuses on web culture and technology.
“The current one-app-fits-all state of Instagram is especially ironic considering that it began as an antidote to social media maximalism,” Broderick wrote in a Jan. 13 opinion piece for The Information.
If Instagram parent Meta can’t find new users, it could go the way of America Online and other portal companies that came before it, into irrelevance, Broderick wrote.
When the platform now known as Instagram launched in 2010, there was something subversive at the time about an app that asked its users to just share one photo at a time, he wrote. “Young urban millennials—aka hipsters—looking to distinguish themselves from users on already mainstream social networks like Facebook were Instagram’s first demographic. The bloated post-night-out Facebook album was suddenly lame. The single, filtered square Instagram post was cool.”
Now Instagram is trying to be everything at once. In July, it announced plans to pivot to a more TikTok-like video interface. Users revolted. In December, Instagram announced new features including group profiles, BeReal-style candid stories and 60-character notes you pin to your profile. The New York Times reported that Meta was considering adding some kind of real-time text feed to Instagram.
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“Instagram now feels less like one coherent user experience and more like an awkward assemblage of semi-random features begging you to use them in sometimes contradictory ways. It wants you to be a public-facing content creator, making highly produced video content, but it also wants you to spontaneously take dual-camera photos on the spur of the moment and update your friends with ephemeral story content. And somewhere in there, you’re still meant to share regular old photos. It’s a lot. And it flies in the face of what has made Instagram stand out among all the other social networks.”Ryan Broderick
AOL was too slow and unable to change, Bernardo Montes de Oca wrote for Slidebean. It focused on dial-up internet while the world shifted to broadband. At the height of its popularity in 2001, AOL bought Time Warner in the largest U.S. merger in history. AOL rapidly shrank thereafter, partly due to the decline of dial-up and rise of broadband. Before the merger, AOL had more than 30 million subscribers. By 2007, it had 10.1 million.
As of 2021, there were still 1.5 million people paying a monthly subscription service fee for AOL — but instead of dial-up access, these subscribers get tech support and identity theft software.
Myspace was one of the first to introduce the world to social media before anyone called it that, Emily Brozyna wrote for Gallery Media Group. By 2006, 90 million people had signed up, overtaking Google and Yahoo as the most visited website in the U.S. On Myspace, your profile page expressed your total personality. “People chatted on forums, listened to music, published emo blog posts and even dressed it all up in a sparkly ‘layout’ to really announce themselves to the internet. Friendships were destroyed over not being in someone’s ‘Top 8,'” she wrote. Myspace peaked around 2008, then died due to rising competition, a buggy website, an annoying user experience, heavy spending and legal battles.
With 2.35 billion active users in 2023, Instagram ranked No. 4 among the biggest social media networks globally as of 2022. Of all people age 13 and older around the world, 21.1 percent use Instagram and 1.318 billion Instagram users can be reached by advertising.
The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2022 that Instagram engagement is declining, with Reels, in particular, seeing a significant drop-off in user engagement
Broderick predicts problems.
Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion and started loading on the features. The first five years were a stunning success. It grew from 100 million daily active users to over 500 million. “This general overloading of things to do is also true for other apps,” Broderick wrote. “Over the last decade, all of our social platforms have accumulated a glut of widgets. But it’s Instagram that seems the most lost.”
Meta’s revenue forecast is not nearly as optimistic as it once was, which means the company now needs more out of Instagram, Broderick wrote. “It plans to add more ads and—despite a major push early last year toward more creator videos—it cited Reels as especially difficult to monetize.”
A bigger problem, Broderick suggested, is that Instagram isn’t driving culture the way it used to. “TikTok has become the internet’s main hub for fashion and entertainment; U.S. users are spending more time on the short-form–video app than on both Facebook and Instagram combined,” he wrote. “The well-lit, algorithmically optimized food photo that was once an Instagram hallmark has now been replaced, according to Eater, by the “messy meal photo dump,” led largely by apps like TikTok.
Instagram seems unable to see what’s driving the popularity of these scruffier upstarts, Broderick wrote. “You can’t beat a focused, easy-to-handle, cheeky social app by loading on endless features. By continuing to do so, Instagram risks becoming the very thing it was meant to subvert—a clunky portal.”