While I hate to admit it, checking my Instagram feed has become a subconscious part of my daily routine. From day to day, the content is generally similar — a few photo dumps, posts from my favorite musicians and maybe some funny memes on my friends’ stories. One thing that especially remains consistent is the copious amounts of ads I receive on a daily basis. Every time I open Instagram, I can guarantee there will always be countless products ready to be marketed to me. This feels incredibly far removed from the way Instagram functioned when I first downloaded the app at age 13.
My first encounter with Instagram was in 2014 when I created my account as a middle schooler who simply wanted to share memes and fun photos with friends. At the time, Instagram had minimal functionality; a user could really only post one photo at a time and share them through direct messages. Posting to my feed was a trivial hobby that didn’t take much thought or effort. Just like all social media sites, Instagram has undergone a plethora of significant updates since its initial launch, including an infamous logo change in 2016, and the ability to include multiple photos in a single post in 2018. The most notable change in recent years was an update in late 2020 that rearranged the navigation bar to promote Instagram’s video feed, Reels, and their shopping page, Shop, in place of the Compose and Activity buttons. While this may just seem like an annoying inconvenience to Instagram users, there are underlying implications about pushing an eerily similar TikTok competitor and a shopping page to the front of the app.
As a company, changing their interface is far more lucrative for Instagram because it nudges users to shop through their app more than ever before. When users buy goods from sellers directly through the app, Instagram takes a 5% commission from every single sale made on their Shop. Meanwhile, Reels have now become one of Instagram’s primary features as a direct response to TikTok’s ever-growing platform. TikTok has roughly a billion monthly users and Reels emerged as Instagram’s attempt to keep users from fleeing their app entirely. With the navigation bar update, Reels is the centerpiece of the app, with the Shop as its secondary feature. To even make a post, a user must tap a small button in the upper right corner of their feed or profile tabs. Such an interface change doesn’t seem fitting for what Instagram is supposed to be: a photo-sharing app. Complicating the photo-sharing process in such a way implies that posting your photos or videos is just an afterthought compared to all the superfluous new features.
In addition to creating new features, social media sites use their algorithms to manipulate users into spending more time on their apps. Netflix’s 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma” sparked discourse on the dangers of social media. The documentary highlights the numerous subtle methods that social media companies use to keep their users scrolling through their feeds. They utilize algorithms to quite literally feed you content from profiles that you interact with the most while simultaneously suggesting ads that best align with your previous browsing habits. Instagram, in particular, recently began sending notifications prompting their users to see the newest post of one of their favorite accounts if they haven’t opened the app in a while. At around the same time, however, Instagram launched its “Take a Break” feature in late 2021 that allows users to set a timer for the amount of time that they want to spend on the app per day. After this time limit has been reached, the app will prompt the user to close Instagram and provide tips on what a user can do during their break. While Instagram tries to promote mental wellness on their app through their timer feature, the cognitive dissonance created by the combination of targeted content and the timer feature greatly discredits their menial efforts to protect the mental health of their users. They lightly nudge their users to take time away from their app every now and then while actively prompting users to constantly scroll through their post feeds, spend money and ultimately benefit Instagram at the expense of the user. Excessive use of social media is associated with an increased risk of mental illness and social media addiction amongst younger audiences is currently on a steep incline. Still, social media companies like Instagram trade the mental health of their users for more revenue. Driven by capitalist gain, they weaponize their users’ data against them and generate more money with every scroll. The previously existing delights of using Instagram have been tarnished with the exploitative tactics of hyper-capitalism.
Social media platforms emerged as a means of connecting people all around the world who may not have the opportunity to interact otherwise. These apps revolutionized the act of networking, entirely demolishing the bounds of how large one’s network could be. Now, there seems only to be an emphasis on monetizing one’s platform. Similar to Instagram, other popular social media sites have adopted new ways for money to be spent on their apps outside of sneaking ads into every crevice and corner possible. TikTok has a feature called Video Gifts that allows users to send their favorite creators digital tokens that can be exchanged for money from TikTok. Recently, Twitter introduced Super Followers, which allows for creators to give their followers exclusive, subscription-based content for a chosen amount below $10 a month. While social media has expanded the ways in which we can interact with one another and has undoubtedly been helpful at a time when having large-scale social gatherings in real life can be more dangerous than ever, it seems that pushing the agenda to monetize social media platforms will only cause more harm than anything else. Rather than posting content to connect with people, more and more users are creating content for the purpose of making money. At what point does this mentality become toxic for content creators and their audiences alike? I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question myself, however, I do think it’s important to pose such a discussion and be mindful of how our online experiences continue to be altered to fuel consumption and further expand the wealth of social media companies.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.