The app’s original purpose has been lost in the era of “performance” media.
Earlier this fall, while riding the subway, I overheard two friends doing some reconnaissance ahead of a party. They were young and cool—intimidatingly so, dressed in the requisite New York all black, with a dash of Y2K revival—and trying to figure out how to find a mutual acquaintance online.
“Does she have Instagram?” one asked, before adding with a laugh: “Does anybody?”
“I don’t even have it on my phone anymore,” the other confessed.
Even just a couple of years ago, it would have been unheard-of for these 20-something New Yorkers to shrug off Instagram—a sanctimonious lifestyle choice people would have regretted starting a conversation about at that party they were headed to. But now it’s not so surprising at all. To scroll through Instagram today is to parse a series of sponsored posts from brands, recommended Reels from people you don’t follow, and the occasional picture from a friend that’s finally surfaced after being posted several days ago. It’s not what it used to be.
“Gen Z’s relationship with Instagram is much like millennials’ relationship with Facebook: Begrudgingly necessary,” Casey Lewis, a youth-culture consultant who writes the youth-culture newsletter After School, told me over email. “They don’t want to be on it, but they feel it’s weird if they’re not.” In fact, a recent Piper Sandler survey found that, of 14,500 teens surveyed across 47 states, only 20 percent named Instagram their favorite social-media platform (TikTok came first, followed by Snapchat).
Simply being on Instagram is a very different thing from actively engaging with it. Participating means throwing pictures into a void, which is why it’s become kind of cringe. To do so earnestly suggests a blithe unawareness of your surroundings, like shouting into the phone in public.
In other words, Instagram is giving us the ick: that feeling when a romantic partner or crush does something small but noticeable—like wearing a fedora—that immediately turns you off forever.
“People who aren’t influencers only use [Instagram] to watch other people make big announcements,” Lee Tilghman, a former full-time Instagram influencer, told me over the phone. “My close friends who aren’t influencers, they haven’t posted in, like, two years.”
As is always the case, the ick came about quite suddenly—things were going great for Instagram, until they just weren’t. In 2014, the app hit 300 million monthly active users, surpassing Twitter for the first time. The Instagram Stories feature, a direct rip-off of Snapchat, was introduced in August 2016 and outpaced the original just one year later. But although Instagram now has 2 billion monthly users, it faces an existential problem: What happens when the 18-to-29-year-olds who are most likely to use the app, at least in America, age out or go elsewhere? Last year, The New York Times reported that Instagram was privately worried about attracting and retaining the new young users that would sustain its long-term growth—not to mention whose growing shopping potential is catnip to advertisers. TikTok is already more popular among young American teens. Plus, a series of algorithm changes—and some questionable attempts to copy features from other apps—have disenchanted many of the users who are sticking around.
Over the summer, these frustrations boiled over. An update that promised, among other things, algorithmically recommended video content that would fill the entire screen was a bridge too far. Users were fed up with watching the app contort itself into a TikTok copycat that prioritized video and recommended posts over photos from friends. Even celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Chrissy Teigen spoke up.
“Make Instagram Instagram Again” read a graphic, created by the photographer Tati Bruening, that was shared by Jenner on Instagram Stories and liked by more than 2 million users.
“It’s not just that I suck at making videos,” Teigen wrote on Twitter in a back-and-forth with Instagram head, Adam Mosseri. “It’s that I don’t see my actual friend’s posts and they don’t see mine.”
Instagram ultimately walked back some of its more controversial changes—those screen takeovers, for one—but the remaining features that were meant to bolster the platform’s growth may not be paying off. Internal documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal show that Instagram users spend 17.6 million hours a day watching Reels, Instagram’s TikTok knockoff, compared with the 197.8 million hours people spend watching TikTok every day. The documents also revealed that Reels engagement has declined by 13.6 percent in recent months, with most users generating “no engagement whatsoever.” When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Instagram said this report referred to a “a moment-in-time snapshot blown out of proportion.” They pointed to Meta’s recent earnings call, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared that Reels plays have seen 50 percent growth in the past six months.
Instagram may not be on its deathbed, but its transformation from cool to cringe is a sea change in the social-media universe. The platform was perhaps the most significant among an old generation of popular apps that embodied the original purpose of social media: to connect online with friends and family. Its decline is about not just a loss of relevance, but a capitulation to a new era of “performance” media, in which we create online primarily to reach people we don’t know instead of the people we do. That has broader implications for Instagram’s most significant by-product: influencers.
People have found ways to get paid for their content online since long before Instagram existed. But the app certainly led to an aesthetic shift, toward pink background walls and flat-lay photography, and facilitated the rise of the modern content creator. Lavish brand deals, in which an influencer promotes a brand’s product to their audience for a fee, have been known to pay anywhere from $100 to $10,000 per post, depending on the size of the creator’s following and their engagement. Now Tilghman, who became an Instagram influencer in 2015 and at one point had close to 400,000 followers, says she’s seen her rate go down by 80 percent over the past five years. The market’s just oversaturated.
In lieu of Instagram, Tilghman turned to Substack, where she writes the paid publication Pet Hair on Everything. She still posts on Instagram, but now mostly as a way to redirect her 246,000 followers to her writing. The author Jessica DeFino, who joined Instagram in 2018 on the advice of publishing agents, similarly began stepping back from the platform in 2020, feeling overwhelmed by the constant feedback of her following. She has now set up auto-replies to her Instagram DMs: If one of her 59,000 followers sends her a message, they’re met with an invitation to instead reach out to DeFino via email.
Of course, these are bad times for many social-media platforms. Facebook and Snap are struggling, too, to say nothing of Twitter. “At least historically, all social media platforms eventually become irrelevant and obsolete, but I’m optimistic that it won’t always be the case,” Lewis said. “I don’t know that Instagram has what it takes … to maintain relevancy as long as, like, email, but I do think a social media platform could pull this off.”
Transformation is natural for social platforms (just look at Tumblr). Instagram’s fading fortunes might mean not the end of the app, but rather a reappraisal of our relationship to it. LaTonya Yvette, a lifestyle blogger who has been on Instagram for close to 12 years, says these changes have always been part of the deal, and that Instagram’s benefits to her career over the years far outnumber the frustrations.
“I’ve always looked at [Instagram] as an extension of my storytelling,” she told me over email. “Because ultimately it should be … a tool in someone’s artistic, social, political and/or business toolbox, not the only avenue.”
DeFino’s social-media audience is how she was found by an editor. She predicts that she’ll return to her Instagram platform to promote her upcoming book this spring.
But would she get back on Instagram as a regular user? Only if she “created a private, personal account — somewhere I could limit my interactions to just family and friends,” she says. “Like what Instagram was in the beginning, I guess.”
That is if, by then, Instagram’s algorithm-driven, recommendation-fueled, shopping-heavy interface would even let her. Ick.