My friend Dean warns me over Twitter: “Things are about to get very CHIC on here.” He insists there’s about to be a flood of refugees from the fashion and art worlds onto the platform. Everyone is simply fed up with Instagram, he insists.
I try to imagine what a chic Twitter would look like. Compared to Instagram, TikTok (even YouTube) Twitter is a conspicuously anti-aesthetic platform. Some of the best accounts operate pseudonymously, barely a selfie or a fit pic in sight. On Twitter, connecting to your social graph is an option, not a necessity. It’s a place for meeting your idols or total randos.
There’s a reason a small batch anonymous account is called an alt. It’s a schizo break from the doldrums of daily life, a launch into the digital deep blue.
There are images. But they’re brutal, utilitarian, to the point. They serve in the meme war. It’s an ideological realm beyond the fashion system, an afterthought beside all the collective heaving and sighs and what the fuck’s. People have quasi-public panic attacks in parked cars. Everyone has low blood sugar. It’s not a visual place. It’s a visceral place.
But now that I think of it… Maybe that’s what creatives need. The flotsam and jetsam of the new public square, not the manicured front yards of personal brand.
Another friend tweets, corroborating Dean’s point:
This doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve been hearing murmurs about Instagram getting “much worse” during the COVID pandemic. People say things like, “I really need it for my work”—which sounds ambivalent at best. Or share tips for how to discreetly post content without exposing themselves as less than compliant with social distancing. “Post it as #tbt!”
The surface-level problem for Instagram is no one knows how to post in a crisis. The consequences for fucking up are high. (Cancellation) While the upside for sticking the landing is low. (Everyone should Get Out the Vote, but should everyone post about it?) The dynamic creates content thats flat. It all has a tin copy-paste tonality reminiscent of how a politician speaks. People complain that Instagram is no longer fun for the same reasons people complain ‘all politicians are the same.’
We can sense their caution and inauthenticity, but caution and inauthenticity are precisely the opposite of what keeps people locked in cycles of engagement.
I recently came across an explanation for why TikTok has seen such explosive growth over the past year: content density. In a new BBC documentary, The TikTok Election, venture capitalist Josh Constine claims TikTok is “the most dense content format known to man.” He defines content density as “the measure of how many ooh’s, ah’s, and haha’s per second are contained in a piece of content.”
Since April, TikTok has displaced Instagram as the second most popular social media app among teens. (It remains bested only by Snapchat.) And it seems the platform will reach a billion users in half the time it took Instagram (four years rather than eight). Clearly, it’s not only my downtown friends who are underwhelmed by their Instagram experience and looking for other options.
Reels was launched in a last ditch attempt to compete with TikTok, but the endeavor reads as muddled at best. What Reels lacks is a meme library. TikTok has a years-long lead compiling audio snippets, dance moves, and classic clips for duets that Reels simply can’t match. Instagram was built to highlight personal brand. It’s for the individual. TikTok was built for people to make silly videos together. It’s for the collective.
No one moves into a clouthouse because they need help taking better selfies. They move into a clouthouse because they need help producing better videos.
I’m old enough to remember when Facebook was cool. It launched in 2004, a year before I graduated high school. This was back when Facebook had just stopped being a Harvard-only social network and was slowly adding prestigious colleges to its roster, working its way down the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. It was the Raya of its day and if I’m honest—whether or not a college was on the Facebook network totally influenced my school choice. Social media has always been about status and exclusivity.
It’s not always money or degrees that drive this though. We find ways to judge one another across a variety of vectors. The word that defines how we understand status and exclusivity in 2020 is clout, that very contemporary neologism whose definition seems intentionally ambiguous, implying if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never have any. Clout is a trifecta of good fortune—someone managing to be simultaneously famous, popular, and influential. More than anything though, clout is the brutally visible metrics which measure such things. The likes and retweets and comments and followers that lay bare everyone’s place in the social schematic.
But the irony is—these numbers don’t really align with the values people hold. It’s impossible to be alive in 2020 and believe the person who attracts the most attention is the person who is held in the highest esteem. The most powerful man in the world is also the most reviled. For our distant ancestors, that kind of situation probably wouldn’t seem too weird. The most powerful person they knew would’ve been a warlord. It wouldn’t be surprising if his subjects both hated and feared him. But democracy was supposed to flip that situation—align power with esteem. Somehow our new viral infrastructure has undone that achievement.
When we look at cloutchasers we can see why with more clarity. The fastest way to become famous is the dirtiest way to become famous: do something awful. The ice cream licking challenge (benign by Internet standards) generated arrests as well as micro-influencers. It’s all very Faustian. You can do something terrible to gain followers (clout), though it will cost you status/esteem (also clout).
It’s the Law of Conservation of Clout.
We see this paralleled in the social platforms themselves. All corporations are like the Ship of Theseus: built to have every inch of them replaced, built to outlast a human lifetime. Instagram isn’t dying so much as being reborn—like Facebook before it.
For the first time this year, Facebook began to see a decline in its North American users. No doubt the Cambridge Analytica controversy took a toll. But certainly it’s the change in user demographics that’s the last straw. One viral QAnon post too many and the legacy users from the harvard.edu only days are wondering: just whose platform is this anyways?
I predict something similar must be underfoot on Instagram as well. It’s another Ship of Theseus, another project of rebuilding. How many people even remember Old Instagram? When it was all about the filters? The logo looked like a brown Instamatic? (For those who don’t know an Instamatic is a film camera produced in the 60s.) The name Instagram itself was a nod to the hipster trend of fetishizing the poor quality of midcentury point and shoots—a trend lost in the sands of time.
As platforms grow, they lose utility for early adopters. In 2013, Instagram was a real time Gossip Girl. I would log on with my friends and refresh the feed, trying to parse who was out and where, which party was worth going to, which we should skip. Those days are long gone. Most of my friends are on private. The most scrupulous ones have a carefully maintained Close Friends, along with a finsta. There’s a great deal of social choreography that goes into performing authenticity and improvisation when you know everyone is watching.
So perhaps the increasingly wooden self-performances we find on Instagram aren’t entirely to blame on the particulars of this year. They’ve been building for quite a while. Instagram adding a billion users in eight years meant your mom, your ex’s pug, and all your frenemies in HR are on the platform, too.
A party’s no fun if you have to invite everyone.
I have a confession I’d like to make. I’ve been more or less off of Instagram since 2018, when I began mass muting everyone I followed. I did it over time, lounging in bed or on a smoking break. While the Stories autoplayed, I would secretly mute one friend after another. After about a week, there were no more stories, no more posts, and most amusing of all, no more ads.
I could keep using Instagram for DMs and politely engage in follow for follow after making a new friend at a party, but without the addictive, mind-numbing scrolling I fell into whenever I opened the app before. The funny thing was, without infinite scroll and autoplay—the content revealed itself to be very boring.
Thus, I haven’t lost all hope for Instagram. We may be able to work against the grain and claw back a more useable product for ourselves.
I didn’t so much kill my Instagram as put it in an induced coma. From time to time, I can reanimate it and put it back to work. There are instances when being self-promotional is perfectly appropriate and Instagram remains by far the best platform for digital marketing.
I would term the lifehack I detailed above an oppositional use case: I was doing something with the UI that was permitted but not encouraged. Towards the ending of my muting spree, I had to go into user profiles to accomplish my goal. The mute button in Stories was suspiciously hidden…
My persuasive design neutralization strategy is certainly not the only example of an oppositional use case though. Meme pages, one of the most beloved aspects of Instagram are also discouraged by Facebook, Inc. Hence the frequent purges of hustler meme page admins from the platform. Similarly, self-help pages convert posts into advice columns and comment threads into de facto forums. Politigram (see Josh Citarella) accounts serve as private debate clubs where politically engaged Zoomers can argue about the micro-ideology du jour.
What all of these instances have in common is treating accounts as communal assets. The page is not a piece of the platform but a specific destination in and of itself. Multiple admins manage the pages and fandoms flock to the comments. They mimic the relationship of a website to a browser, rather than a post to an infinite scroll. But Facebook does not want users intentionally or creatively navigating their platform. They want you to use it as it was intended…
Jack Dorsey had a very bad week. The Big Tech Bigwigs were hauled before Congress yet again, this time to testify about their content moderation policies. Somehow despite both Twitter and Facebook banning the New York Post’s Hunter Biden hit piece, Jack ended up being the fall guy. Maybe it was his answers. Maybe it was his outfit. Jack has grown quite the COVID beard. His look was compared variously to Rasputin, Saddam Hussein in his bunker, a person experiencing homelessness, Freddie Munster, Gandalf, a billygoat, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Capt. Jack Sparrow, and of course, hermit Luke Skywalker.
Before the hearings even began, Republican operatives were threatening to revoke Section 230, a law passed in the 90s that protects digital platforms from liability for any content published by third parties. It’s been argued that repealing the statute would create better incentives for content moderation. I once found this plausible. But seeing Mark Zuckerburg overjoyed at the proposal gave me pause—
Maybe only the tech monopolies have the manpower and legal bandwidth to deal with the gargantuan task of content moderation. Maybe instead of a make-work pantopticon that pays us in clout, we would get a make-work pantopticon that pays us in bullshit jobs. I spend too much time on Twitter to believe that content moderating it would be anything but a terrible job in the future.
The Infinite Doomscroll is the corollary to Zoom Fatigue. You get that weird tension behind your eyes. The biochemical reactions are firing, but you’re entirely disembodied from the stimuli. What is a networking event when you’re sitting in your kitchen with no pants on? What is a party when you’re schlubbing around your apartment alone in dirty sweatpants? Gang’s all here on FaceTime and yet…
Twitter similarly gives us a false sense of being present—only to all the horrors of the world. Things have gone too far off the rails for us to pretend Instagram is still real life, but for a majority of users, it’s unclear real life is what they’re looking for at the moment.
The platforms will churn. People will find new favorites to suit their desires and preferences. But for now Instagram will remain. Like the Ship of Theseus, for every user lost there will be a new one gained. At some point the consequences of losing the favor of teens and creatives will become clear. In the meantime, it can reconstitute itself with Facebook defectors fleeing from a platform that is truly imploding.