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.