Since the new Instagram isn’t appealing to anyone, maybe it’s time to get away from it

Since the new Instagram isn't appealing to anyone, maybe it's time to get away from it

“Does Instagram Really Suck Now?” It’s a question that my sister first asked me a month ago, and which quickly spread on the net, until making the headlines this week following the declaration of our social media dilettante, Kylie Jenner. “GIVE US BACK THE OLD INSTAGRAM”, pleaded the billionaire in an all-caps story posted on the app. “I just want to see cool pictures of my friends,” she added in smaller print.

The app has indeed become nigh unbearable lately, overrun with “Reels” videos, sponsored ads, and weird little “suggested posts” from unknown accounts. Although the latter are generated by custom algorithms, the ones cluttering my feed seem completely random: myriads of blondes preparing vegan salads, delirious mammals, spectacular makeovers of houses totally beyond my means in cities where I never set foot. Those who want to see “cool photos” of their friends must first navigate through this maze.

Of course, this change is tactical, it marks Instagram’s desire to favor videos and thus function more like its very popular competitor, TikTok. Jenner and the other critics of the new version are right: Instagram sucks now.

The days when Instagram
was called Burbn

But in fact, this is nothing new. During the first months of its existence in 2010 the app was called Burbn and its service offer was a rather confusing mix: you could “register” in certain places, earn points by hanging out with other users and post photos of yourself in their company. The app’s developers soon found that most people only used Burbn to post photos, so they limited it to that function (plus some filters to make these photos prettier) and renamed it by combining the terms “instant camera” and “telegram”.

I made an account when I graduated from college and my first post was a profile picture of an ugly gingerbread house I had decorated. I didn’t understand how to rotate the image (or build a gingerbread house, apparently) but I didn’t really care. The post was liked by one person. Too nice a person.

Those early days were probably Instagram’s golden age: low stakes, low engagement. I was posting pictures of my friends, my cats, and some particularly scenic hikes. And I would gratify harmless comments, like “I miss you!” and “Too cute!” photos of the same style published by my friends. At a time when Facebook was colonized by the multi-level marketing plans of my high school friends and the dubious political statements of distant relatives, my circle of friends and I fell back on Instagram. The application fulfilled its purpose: to allow us to keep in touch.

Instagram has become
a more toxic environment,
where we don’t just post
selfies and memes.

But if there’s a world where a popular app can thrive by performing a single, simple function, it’s not ours. Instagram was soon acquired by Meta (then Facebook) for the astronomical sum of one billion dollars. instagram gave a verb. Startups flocked to help influencers grow their posts —perfectly ordinary people started advertising clothes and make-up to their friends, gradually reaching a sizeable audience.

Then the algorithm started reward high cheekbones, flawless skin and luscious lips until sickening. All of this has had a drastic effect: Instagram has become a more toxic environment, where you no longer just post selfies and memes, but where you can form parasocial relationships with celebrities, fuel complexes and see advertisements for cheap facelifts.

consume with
(great) moderation

For my part, I started to distance myself long before we got there. My account is private, I only accept invitations from people I know (or “know” in the broad sense the term has taken on in the digital age). I follow a few ballet companies to keep up to date with shows and a few brands to stay up to date with promotions (how else would I know when to heat up the credit card at J. Crew?). I’m a single fitness influencer and only because I really do the exercises she suggests (and, I admit, her baby is too cute). I have a little system in place to stay in control: I don’t have the app on my phone’s home screen, so when I log in, it’s a deliberate decision, which I usually make when I have to queue.

I am not an ascetic of the Internet, however, and I see the interest of social networks, on a professional and personal level. But I know that for me, social networks in their current version must be consumed with the utmost moderation. I had to stop following Emily Ratajkowski, for example, because queuing at Walgreens with a prescription for an anti-acne gel while looking at pictures of her rock-hard abs and vacations on private beaches made me bitter. It has nothing to do with @EmRata (who is probably adorable) and everything to do with me, but hey. In my bad times, I sometimes even struggle to find the energy to rejoice for the people I really love.

That little time I spend on the app—a few minutes a week scrolling through the newsfeed and browsing my friends’ stories—is enough to know who’s getting engaged and who’s buying a house; who has a baby and is releasing a book (and who, unlikely, has a baby and is releasing a book at the same time). I’ve learned to avoid checking out the app if I’m not in the mood to comment on their good news by clicking on the heart.

I am not an isolated case. Selena Gomez, who is one of the most followed celebrities on Instagram –by definition, one of the most visually attractive–, explains that for several years, the invasive side of the application prompted her to disconnect: “I was tired of seeing other people’s lives. After this decision, I felt instantly liberated.” (It is assumed that she now has a team that feeds her news feed).

Who is the app for now? Whether Kylie Jenner herself is genuinely annoyed by the new UI or not, she has a more obvious reason for wanting Instagram to favor the “cool pictures”. She and her sisters have long used the platform to sell their products and images (which are, in a sense, products too). Their inability to master the new form of short videos promoted by Instagram risks diminishing their influence. But that influence might still be strong enough to get them there: In the days following Jenner’s post, the company’s stock fell 3%.

In video cleverly consensual, Instagram director Adam Mosseri promised he would stay “engaged” towards users. But the wrong version of the app has long since won. Perhaps it is users today who should break their engagement with Instagram.