Last week Instagram users trying to seek out the most important part of the app, the activity feed, were likely confused to find that the homepage’s icons were not where they used to be. Where a heart icon in the bottom right corner once led users to see who has favorited their posts, now there was a tiny bag that led you to Instagram’s new shopping page. The app was preying on every user’s muscle memory well-tuned to its layout. “Instead of looking at who is favoriting your posts, why not shop?” Instagram seemed to say, loud and clear. The app had reached its final, dismal form; QVC for a digital age, influencer-approved favorites hanging in the windows of the newly opened digital mall.
That Instagram would pivot fully into becoming a shopping app (not to mention clinging to the possibility of being a TikTok competitor, with its dreadful “Reels” page where the search function used to be) isn’t totally shocking. The shopping page placement had been rolled out as a test in July and was only universally adopted in the app this month. Since its inception, Instagram has gone from being a cute, banal photo-sharing app to a shopping app in Facebook’s growing arsenal of websites designed to mine user data to better sell ads back to them. But the app’s blatantly consumerist makeover comes at a time when Instagram’s potential was just being illustrated by its users.
When it debuted in 2010, there was a welcome minimalism to Instagram’s photo-first approach in the shadow of text-heavy Twitter and crowded Facebook, which by then had lost its college and high school exclusivity. But Instagram was also cooler, with its easy to use retro filters that gave a warm, Polaroid glow to otherwise boring photos, a move borrowed from the app Hipstamatic. It was detached from Facebook’s noisy stream of relationship updates, job announcements, and wall posts. You could still upload a roll of party photos to Facebook the next morning and painstakingly tag each of your friends for the whole school to see, but Instagram understood that the age of the digital camera was over. Nothing on that dingy Canon pocket camera was going to be as pretty and hipster chic as anything you could post on Instagram, captured and uploaded at the moment by a smartphone. It’s no wonder Facebook acquired the app two years later for $1 billion.
Almost immediately the line between who users followed and actually knew, as opposed to who they wished they knew, became blurred. You couldn’t friend Justin Bieber on Facebook, but you could follow him just like you follow all your friends on Instagram. Any social media network has a sort of toxic ability to make its users feel competitive with the people they follow, but Instagram seemed to exacerbate that impulse. The sort of content that thrives on Instagram emphasizes visual pleasures (travel photos, fashion blogging, makeup tutorials) and in-the-moment documentation that feels like an experience. And while the first few years of its life Instagram updates were minimal, it began declining into a marketplace around 2013 when it introduced sponsored posts including sleek, unassuming photo ads from brands like Paypal and Macys, adding tools for businesses to calculate the reach of their posts and more the next year.
At the same time Instagram was welcoming ads into its feeds, users were being served content that privileged consumption via influencers. “Instagram is in some ways competing with its own users for ad dollars,” CNBC reported in 2014 on the wild phenomenon of Instagram “influencers” who could make over $5,000 a month through posting ads for products on the app. But the rise in endorsement posts from glamorous users with large followings who gamed Instagram with staged, highly curated aspirational content, proved hard to regulate. In 2017 the FTC announced it had sent out more than 90 letters to influencers who were not correctly labeling their posts as ads, writing “many consumers will not understand a disclosure like ‘#sp,’” “Thanks [Brand],” or “‘#partner’ in an Instagram post to mean that the post is sponsored.” Just the year before the FTC filed a complaint against Lord & Taylor after the store sent out identical dresses to influencers who posted the dress on Instagram without disclosing the posts were paid.
Increasingly, nobody could deny that being on Instagram is to be inundated with advertisements. There were algorithmically-driven ads so eerily specific that many users wondered if the app was actually listening to their conversations, and any post seemed as if it could be monetized, including pregnancy announcements. “I was being reached by Facebook Ads Manager through detailed targeting, which I knew existed: users who like Bon Appétit, live in Brooklyn, between the ages of 18 and 35, should see this ad. But this was being stalked on another level,” Dayna Tortorici wrote for n+1, describing how she only found brief peace from the influx of disturbingly specific ads when she changed her preferences to restrict data usage, resulting in a series of generic advertisements for iPhone games and t-shirts. By 2018 ads were absolutely taking over the app; in 2019 The Information reported that the year prior Facebook executives had instructed the app to “roughly double” the number of ads users saw in the app. Why the aggressive ad push? Because Facebook will probably need to rely one day on Instagram for the company’s advertising revenue growth, Recode reported in 2018.
But there are only so many places where Instagram can go, revenue-wise, beyond sticking ads in every corner of the app, from Stories, the Explore tab, and the end of your feed. So Instagram bet on shopping, making it easier and easier to shop on the app, adding shoppable links for businesses to posts and stories and Instagram checkout, so people can buy their items without ever leaving the app. Instagram wants to replicate what it feels like to browse in a store, not simply head to your web browser and search for a specific product. “There’s that moment in between, where you want to go out and actively browse your mall or Soho in New York or London,” Ashley Yuki, Instagram’s product lead for Explore, IGTV and Shopping said at a 2019 event. “We want to be able to bring that to Instagram too.”
But the combination of the app’s push into e-commerce and the aggressively targeted ads, minted with the latest update that draws all eyes to the shopping section, has made Instagram almost unusable. Which is a shame, because as insufferable as Instagram can be at times, filled with aspirational travel photos, rich celebrities offering a peek into their gluttonous lifestyles, and millions of wannabe influencers trying to capture your attention so they can make a living off of posing in Reformation dresses, for many it can also be a respite from the corners of the internet that privilege the most stressful elements of the news cycle and angry debate. Sure, click through enough accounts of healthy, green juice toting yoga influencers on Instagram and you might end up reading conspiracy theories, but there are fleeting pockets of joy: art, baby photos, cooking accounts. The app’s ephemeral Story section, snatched expertly from Snapchat and replicated just this week by Twitter, is where my friends and I can share petty thoughts and intimate moments without worrying about an unwanted, larger audience in a more public space.
Instagram’s committed transformation into a shopping app this month is also especially depressing given the political potential of the app this past spring and summer. The waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder led to an influx of easy-to-read informational posts about racism on Instagram, a trend criticized for frequently whittling down decades of anti-racist work into millennial pink guides perfect for reblogging and not doing much else beyond them. But in many cities, especially New York City, Instagram has become a necessity for seeking out information about mutual aid groups, local organizations, and information for ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. It feels like the moment Instagram’s power as a tool for organizing and creating communities was unlocked, the company dug deeper into commercialism, oblivious to how so many people were using the app.
Photos are not a priority on Instagram anymore, products are. As of 2020, Instagram’s tagline is “Bringing you closer to the people and things you love.” With the app’s latest update the emphasis on “things” couldn’t be clearer.