Think about it, perhaps Instagram was giving everyone what they wanted. After all, didn’t we all want to be free from the burdens posed by your friends’ vacation photos? Some seemed to be perpetually on vacation, at exotic locales. Or all those photos with beautifully laid out food and the hashtag #foodie? Our lives seemed miserable, compared with theirs. Instagram decided to change a few things around. But it has to retreat, for now.

The updates and the subsequent direction were there to be seen over time. Users would see a lot more posts from people who you weren’t actually following on Instagram. Suggested posts, if you may. As a result, posts from your actual friends got less screen time on the main feed. Even greater was the focus on Reels content, essentially videos, which may have seemed overbearing on a social platform that focused on photos. At least till now. Reminded everyone of TikTok.

Balance: Is Instagram really going the TikTok way?

Not everyone was impressed. Be it long-time users or celebrity users, including the Kardashians. “Make Instagram Instagram again”, a post by American photographer Tati Bruening (@illumitati) was re-shared by Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. “Stop trying to be TikTok I just want to see cute photos of my friends”, it went on (albeit missing some punctuation). They may very well have had a point though.

Also Read: Meta’s pandemic-era forecast was too rosy: Mark Zuckerberg

It was only in May this year that Instagram confirmed the planned changes. Incoming was a new main feed, complete with a full-screen layout for videos and photos. That’s exactly how TikTok does things. The similarities were difficult to ignore.

When we reached out to Instagram to understand the rationale behind the planned layout changes as well as how the algorithm is leaning more towards showing you posts from people you don’t know, the company talked about attempting a balancing act.

“To help make Instagram a great place for people to discover entertaining content, we’re always working on showing you the right balance of posts from friends and family, and people you don’t follow – as well as the right balance of photos and videos based on what we think you’d like to see,” a Meta spokesperson tells HT.

Instagram globally has around 1.4million monthly active users, while TikTok isn’t far behind with 1.2million monthly active users, that’s according to numbers by research firm Statista. Snapchat has just under 600million monthly active users. TikTok has been banned in India, as part of a larger government crackdown on Chinese-owned apps, since the summer of 2020. India is one of Snapchat’s biggest markets, with around 150million active users.

Jenner was reposting what Bruening had shared. She has 332k followers, Jenner has 363million. That’s a massive combined reach, to get the message out. There has since been a online petition as well.

When Adam Mosseri, the man leading the Instagram efforts had talked about the upcoming changes, he had asked Instagram users to be honest. “If you love it, great. If you hate it, great”, he had said, while inviting feedback. It certainly was honest, as it turns out.

Scanning the changes: Understanding Instagram’s morphing

Let us look at this as three-dimensional changes, which Meta looked to implement within Instagram.

First, the new layout for the main feed, which would have been more full-screen in nature and similar to rival app, TikTok. Secondly, more recommended and suggestion-based posts on your feed, pushing aside (in a way) posts from friends you actually follow. Third, pushing Reels, that is video content, ahead of photography posts which Instagram had done all this while.

“We are focused on making sure each post is relevant for you, and we give people control to shape their experience,” Meta tells HT. For 30 days, Meta is giving users the option to snooze the recommended posts. A temporary fix, while the next plan is charted out.

Mind you, the new feed layout in full screen was still part of a growing test and not all users had received it yet. Some users also complained that in this new layout, they couldn’t mute or unmute videos (sorry, Reels, as Instagram calls them) by simply tapping on the screen. That’s a useful feature, not one to eliminate.

Instagram and Meta have often faced allegations of being inspired by rival apps, including TikTok and Snapchat. This is particularly referenced for Reels video feature which TikTok had since much earlier and Stories, a feature that Snapchat had popularised on its social media app. Similarities can always be debated, but there was no denying the ingredients.

It has not worked, but what’s the way forward for Instagram?

It should come as no surprise that Meta wanted to make wholesale changes to Instagram and how content is served to more than a billion users globally.

Earlier this year, Meta reported that it had lost active users, for the first time in the social media company’s existence. And last month, the quarterly numbers indicated a revenue drop, the first ever for Meta.

The signs had been there. In June, an internal memo that was revealed in public, had warned employees that the company is in the midst of “serious times” and “headwinds are fierce”. But if read carefully, the same memo underlined the importance of Reels and the Discovery Engine (that’s the algorithm which dictates what you see) as revenue generators.

“We are growing quickly: time spent on Reels overall has more than doubled year over year both in the US and globally, with 80% of the growth since March coming from Facebook. These are early days, but with good momentum,” read the note from Chris Cox, chief product officer at Meta. “These will shift towards the vision of recommending the content that matters most from across the entire corpus of content on our platforms, to the billions of people who use our products each day,” it added.

Course correction or a temporary pause?

For now, Instagram is attempting to calm down the fierce backlash. The full screen feed test will be phased out, the number of recommended posts will be reduced and the algorithms that pick suggested content will be reworked. What is likely not going away is the Reels focus. You’ll just have to make peace with it.

“Feedback from our community is crucial to getting this right, and we will continue to iterate and explore new options based on what we’re hearing,” the Meta spokesperson tells us.

But things won’t remain the same, in the long run. If you hope for permanency in the rollback, that’s unlikely. The focus on video content within Instagram is a conscious business decision, which is backed by numbers and the organic as well as nudged usage trends.

Mark Zuckerberg has already noted that Meta made more than a $1 billion annual run rate on ads that run within Reels. That, coupled with the increased time spent on the Reels’ content (mostly driven by the forced presentation), could hold a steady revenue stream for Meta in the coming quarters. In the latest earnings call, Zuckerberg also made it clear that recommended content quantity will see a significant jump – up from 15% on Facebook now, to as much as 50% of total content you see on your Facebook and Instagram feeds, by the end of 2023.

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