Instagram hasn’t seemed like its past self in a while.
At the bottom of its app, no longer will you find an option to compose a new post or even a tab to browse who liked and commented on your recent pictures and videos. Instead, these are now tucked away in a corner to make room for the photo-sharing social network’s latest ventures: E-commerce and a bottomless pit of vertical videos. That’s not to be confused with the clips housed under the TV-like icon or the row of ephemeral stories at the top of your feed.
Most of these didn’t exist two years ago. So what happened?
The answer to that is flashed in all caps every time you open the Instagram app: Facebook.
Since Facebook spent a billion dollars eight years ago to acquire it, Instagram has fought hard to stay at an arm’s length from its hulking new owner. Its founders were promised autonomy, and they cashed in on that to retain Instagram’s core beliefs and values for as long as they could while embarking on the Facebook-ian path. Case in point: On one occasion, as Facebook pushed Instagram for in-app advertising, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom personally reviewed and edited an ad to make sure it sat well with Instagram’s brand.
But neither Systrom or fellow co-founder Mike Krieger are at the helm of Instagram anymore, and for Facebook, the time has come for that billion bucks to earn its keep. That means exposing Instagram and its billion-plus users to the Facebook playbook: Outfit it with all the social tools one might need to build a treasure trove of content such as longform IGTV videos, Stories, Reels, and more — and then monetize it all to turn the platform into a revenue powerhouse.
In 2020, this transformation was more apparent than ever. Instagram now has more creative features than anyone probably needs, and all of them have been monetized or are in the process of being monetized. There are advertisements in every nook and cranny of the app, a marketplace has occupied a dedicated tab on the app, businesses can develop virtual storefronts right in the app with integrated checkout pages, and Reels — the six-month-old TikTok clone — already has shopping options. The list is endless. Instagram or more accurately, Facebook, is on a roll.
For Facebook, Instagram is, in a lot of ways, the new-gen Facebook. It has no choice. The big blue whale’s growth itself has stagnated. Trust in Facebook is at an all-time low. Americans are spending more time every day on rivals like TikTok, and increasingly less time on Facebook.
On the other hand, Instagram’s figures have continued their upward trajectory. One report goes as far as to estimate that Instagram will make more money than Facebook next year.
What Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg feared would happen right before betting on Instagram is happening.
“If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, something else will,” he had written in an internal email in 2012. Fortunately for Zuckerberg, Facebook now owns and controls the thing that may have overshadowed it in the future and is now reshaping it to dominate the internet. And to do that, Instagram has to evolve into a version of Facebook.
The last few years have been Instagram’s most radical, as it combats growing competition and tries to keep its audiences and stars coming back for more. In doing so, it’s evolving into an internet of its own, much like Facebook ha: With a search that’s no longer restricted to people, places, and hashtags, as well as an e-commerce service, travel guides, multiple entertainment outlets, and an endless page to explore videos and photos from millions of users.
You can now search beyond usernames and hashtags for interests on Instagram. This is now available in English in a handful of countries and we’ll share more updates as we go. pic.twitter.com/zKkGXTe0wn
— Adam Mosseri ???? (@mosseri) November 18, 2020
Ash Read, editorial director at Buffer, a social media management platform, believes Instagram is in a better position to be the future of social media thanks to its mobile-first approach. New features that many users are today interested in such as TikTok-like vertical clips or disappearing media “feel more native on [Instagram], whereas on Facebook, they can feel a little forced,” he said.
“User-generated content comes mostly from mobile, so in the end, the mobile-first platform, Instagram, will win out,” he predicts.
Of course, that doesn’t mean at all that Facebook will retire and let its premier social network, which hosts more than a quarter of the world’s population, slip into oblivion. No, instead, Facebook is expected to run the show as a “family” and take advantage of Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp’s disparate audiences to establish a ubiquitous foothold. They’re being engineered to complement one another rather than compete.
Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag and an independent product designer, likens Facebook’s situation to how companies like Toyota sell cars under multiple brands to cater to different market segments.
“Facebook represents where e-commerce has been (Marketplace, Pages, advertising, etc.) and Instagram is set on colonizing the bleeding edge of where commerce is going,” he added.
So where does that leave Instagram? Will the Facebook model cannibalize Instagram, which has historically tried so hard to stay away from it?
On the surface of it all, there is a risk of cluttering. Evan Asano, founder and CEO of Mediakix, a leading influencer marketing agency, believes that these rapid changes (there are four ways to post a video) could end up overwhelming users in the short term, but he expects Facebook to tread the line and “evolve both platforms to continually appeal to different users and different use cases.”
Henk Campher, vice president of corporate marketing at Hootsuite, agrees. “I think it would be foolish to underestimate the power of Facebook to develop a platform,” he told Digital Trends.
It’s also worth remembering that since the founders left, Instagram has been in an experimental phase of sorts, and it seems to be aware of how precarious its product strategy has been lately.
In a recent interview with The Verge, Instagram’s head, Adam Mosseri, admitted that there are “too many different types of video” and the app could use some cleanup.
Facebook is shaping Instagram to capitalize on how a lot of people today use the internet. Their purchases are influenced by influencers and online comments. They use visual catalogs for travel ideas, guides, shopping, and more. They are increasingly spending more time scrolling through quick, vertical videos on apps like TikTok than on YouTube. Instagram has it all.
The concerns around Instagram evolving too much are, at best, premature. This is too big of a bet for Facebook to miss by overdoing revenue-focused updates. It is, after all, Facebook’s second shot at developing a social network, and it’s building on the lessons it has learned to avoid repeating its mistakes.
“They’re savvy, they’re aware of their competition and their reputation — and there’s a ton of money to make. Why would they risk fucking it up?” Messina added.
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