‘Stop being TikTok’: How video-centric Instagram sparked a revolt

When changing a social media platform synonymous with celebrity culture, make sure the Kardashian-Jenners are on board first.

Instagram was forced into a partial pullback last week when influencer royalties joined a user rebellion against the app, fueled by complaints that it had become too video-centric and was distributing content from accounts that people weren’t following.

Kylie Jenner and her sister Kim Kardashian – who each have more than 300 million Instagram followers – echoed the concerns of hundreds of thousands others when they shared a meme calling for them to “make Instagram Instagram again”.

The core accusation was that Instagram was mimicking its arch-rival TikTok at the expense of a loyal user base that wanted to re-emphasize its photo-sharing origins. The meme, originally posted by US photographer Tati Bruening, added: “Stop being TikTok, I just want to see cute photos of my friends.” A Save Instagram petition created by Brüning has more collected more than 275,000 signatures.

Chinese-owned TikTok has rocked the social media establishment. The social video app has reached more than 1 billion users worldwide to put it on par with Instagram, itself a former upstart that fueled competition so much that Mark Zuckerberg bought it.

Instagram boss Adam Mosseri announced last week that the app would be rolling back some of the changes that sparked the revolt. “I’m glad we took a risk – if we don’t fail every once in a while, we’re not thinking big enough or bold enough,” he said in an interview with tech newsletter Platformer. “But we definitely have to take a big step back and regroup.”

It’s not just influencers who have complained, but also people who use the platform to interact with friends and family. “It’s not a good redesign. I now refuse to scroll down my feed because I see more videos from unfollowed sites than from my own family and friends,” said Erika Cazares, owner of a Texas-based project management firm.

Instagram has tried a number of changes, including increasing the number of videos in users’ main feed, introducing a full-screen mode for viewing posts, and pushing more videos from accounts that a user doesn’t follow. In a permanent change announced last week, all videos posted on Instagram will become “Reels,” Instagram’s TikTok-style video feature.

Mosseri said Instagram would reduce the amount of videos sent to users from accounts they don’t follow and stop testing a full-screen mode for viewing posts.

Vex King, a UK-based self-help author, said Instagram needs to do more to keep users happy. King said he owes his success to Instagram — his literary agent found him through the app. But he’s one of many users who took to the platform last week to lament how it’s changed. Wing said his reach — measured in likes from his 1.2 million followers — has declined sharply since Instagram started tinkering this year.

“The majority of users I spoke to want photos to be a priority, wish for better support, a default chronological feed, and an algorithm that serves them better,” he said. “I think this rollback is a step in the right direction because it means they are paying attention and listening, but they still need to do more. They might even consider making a separate Reels app to compete with TikTok if they want to.”

Instagram was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger as a photo-sharing app, a home for the millions of snaps people took with the camera on their smartphones. It grew rapidly, from 1 million users in two months to 10 million in a year, prompting Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook to buy it for $1 billion in 2012. It shaped celebrity culture and attracted legions of users when it became as ubiquitous as its acronym Insta.

Shortly before announcing the withdrawal, Mosseri said in a video post on Instagram that the world is changing and Instagram must change with it. “I think Instagram will become more and more video-centric over time.”

Instagram’s parent company Meta hinted at a short video future last week when it reported a 30 percent increase in time spent on reels across Instagram and Facebook.

Last week, Instagram’s sister app, Facebook, also announced a radical redesign that also focuses on guiding users toward an algorithmically curated selection of posts from strangers and away from content shared by their friends. “Our discovery engine will recommend the content that we think will interest you most,” said Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and Meta.

Users who didn’t like the algorithm changes may need to brace themselves. Zuckerberg said the amount of recommended content on users’ Instagram and Facebook feeds from unfollowed accounts would double from the current 15% to 30% by the end of next year.

Experts say that Zuckerberg, who is also making a major strategic foray into the virtual world of the “metaverse,” won’t back down.

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“Make no mistake, this is a regrouping, not a way back. Meta is aware that its future is in Metaverse and short-form video. And the latter means Instagram wants to be like TikTok,” said Mike Proulx, research director at analytics firm Forrester.

Instagram and Facebook worry that many users want an experience more like TikTok. According to SimilarWeb research, the video-sharing app vastly outperforms Instagram in downloads, and it also beats Facebook for 18-34 year olds. TikTok has a very different approach to “old Instagram,” with its algorithm-powered “For You” page pulling in content from users related to the service, rather than focusing on friends and other followers.

But the difference from TikTok is not only in the form. Unlike Instagram and Facebook, the app has always been more about consuming content than connecting with friends — and in their rush, some fear Zuckerberg and Mosseri have forgotten that.

“Meta seems to have correctly identified what people like about TikTok,” said Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter on internet culture. “Short-form videos, remixable video and audio editing tools that work on mobile, and developers making things rather than affecting things — but they’re still trying to cram those features into an ecosystem that wasn’t built for them.”