Facebook has no idea what to do with Instagram.
That’s not to say the company doesn’t know how to run Instagram — since Facebook bought the platform for $1 billion in 2012, it’s grown to have more than a billion monthly users. But the company’s leadership doesn’t seem to understand that many of the people who use Instagram don’t want it to be Facebook.
It’s clear that Facebook wants to merge its three big platforms — Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook — into one. Just last week, Facebook confirmed it would be changing the names of Instagram and WhatsApp to “Instagram by Facebook” and “WhatsApp by Facebook” respectively. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that Facebook is working to merge Facebook Messenger and Instagram’s chat, with engineers rebuilding Instagram’s chat on Messenger’s technology.
Some of this makes sense from a business perspective: Why have two different messaging apps (three, if you include WhatsApp) when you can have one? There also seems to be a bit of ego: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is angry that Facebook doesn’t get credit for the explosive growth of Instagram and WhatsApp, according to The Information.
The move shows that Facebook has a fundamental misunderstanding about why Instagram is successful — and why Facebook is failing (at least in the U.S.).
A tarnished brand
Facebook is a tarnished brand: Between clickbait, fake news, a $5 billion dollar settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations, disastrous congressional hearings, lackluster customer service, and a widely disliked CEO, the platform has seen a significant decrease in usage. According to a market research survey by Edison Research, Facebook’s American user base has dropped by about 15 million since 2017. The largest drop was among younger users: Teens and millennials.
Facebook isn’t cool anymore. It’s the place where your parents hang out. It skews older, according to the Edison data. In fact, the only part of Facebook’s U.S. user base that is growing is the 55-plus demographic.
At the same time, Instagram keeps adding American users — and Edison data shows most of the people leaving Facebook appear to be fleeing to Instagram. Those same teens and millennials are flocking to Instagram — for now.
If Zuckerberg continues the push to Facebook-ize Instagram, chances are he’ll turn off those same users. People don’t want to be reminded of Instagram’s tight connection to Facebook. Younger users already embrace non-Facebook-owned platforms like TikTok and Snapchat — they just don’t have the stigma that Facebook does.
There’s also the matter of the platform itself. Instagram took off because of its simplicity — you can’t really share links or articles, just pictures and videos. It’s a visual platform. Compare the experience of opening up Facebook — where you’ll see walls of text, options on the right and left — with Instagram, which immediately places the focus on images. Facebook will drive you nuts with notifications in a relentless drive to push engagement. Instagram is pretty chill. Facebook is about reading, Instagram is about seeing. It’s an entirely different user experience.
There are no groups, games, or marketplaces on Instagram. The app’s core experience is sharing (or consuming) photos and video. Stories, one of Instagram’s most popular features, was fully incorporated into Facebook. It doesn’t go in the other direction. People want more Instagram in their Facebook, not more Facebook in their Instagram.
Even people who do use both platforms use them in different ways. For me, Facebook has become a place to keep track of groups or communities and occasionally look for stuff I want to buy on the Facebook Marketplace. Instagram is much more about keeping track of the people I care about (along with following local restaurants to remind me about the pizza I want to eat).
There’s no doubt that Facebook’s money and resources have helped Instagram, but Zuckerberg is wrong: Instagram has thrived despite Facebook’s ownership, not because of it. Combining the two platforms is a terrible idea, but it’s one that Facebook seems dead set on.
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