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Lithium Seeing Instagram for what it is: for-profit

Feb. 2, 2021
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As the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered in-person interactions risky and unsafe, social media has become our primary point of contact with others. It’s how we transport our relationships online, how we sustain and forge new ones from a distance. Nonetheless, viewing social media purely as a form of social connection ignores its commercial nature. Instagram, as an example, has become as much a site for social engagement as it has a vehicle for commercial enterprises and advertising. New changes to the app’s layout overwhelmingly promote content from accounts you don’t follow, ones largely marketing material goods. 

Many users have complained that once you view a post from someone you’re following, it disappears; promoted posts from influencers saturate one’s feed instead. Buttons for accessing Shopping and Reels are anchored right at the bottom, while content-sharing tools and the notification menu have become less accessible. This heavily criticized new update centers the tech giant’s top priority: profit. How, then, can one reconcile the profit-oriented nature of platforms like Instagram with their supposed intent to foster community? 

CEO and Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri’s formal statement about the November app update is as follows: “The Reels tab makes it easier for you to discover short, fun videos from creators all over the world and people just like you. The Shop tab gives you a better way to connect with brands and creators and discover products you love.” In reality, the Reels function is a direct competitor to TikTok, much like the Stories feature is to Snapchat’s story function. The Shop tab may help one “connect with brands and creators and discover products,” but it also skyrockets the app’s revenue. After all, Instagram makes most of its money from links to commercial products and advertisements that creators promote in spades.

Mosseri hasn’t denied that the new update caters to influencers and those who use the app to earn money. In fact, he’s acknowledged it as the goal. In a Q&A over Instagram Stories, Mosseri stated that the platform’s new features will help more creators than ever make a living, and that we can soon “expect more updates” like these. According to a study by InfluencerDB, influencers account for approximately 39% of Instagram profiles with over 15,000 followers, or at least 500,000 users on the app. Influencers with large followings, then, make up a fraction—about 0.05%—of the over one billion monthly active Instagram users worldwide. Why is their presence on the app being emphasized? Simply put, more income for influencer types translates to more profit for Instagram itself. I propose that Instagram’s choice to alter the app’s layout and capitalize off influencer culture is purely monetary. To uplift those who use the platform to make money is to make the app more profitable.

To get a sense of how other Instagram users felt about the new update, I went direct to the source, asking my own followers. “Instagram pushes a narrative for what someone our age should be interested in,” one user said. “It’s frustrating because you just want to see your friends and not be reminded of what makes you less and be offered products you can buy to reach some status of Instagrammable glory,” another user lamented. Of the individuals I asked to comment, many cited that they want to delete Instagram now more than ever. But the question remains—will they? 

As an active Instagram user myself, I am presented with the same dilemma my fellow users face: do the changes to Instagram’s layout merit deleting the app? As much as I would like to delete my profile and remove myself from the hypercommercialism Instagram has come to represent, I recognize what Instagram can still provide—digital interaction with friends, access to news platforms and information, a sense of community online. This push and pull lies at the crux of Instagram’s “problem.” It is a space to connect with loved ones, yet also a space bound by the reality of capitalism. Profit is not just an “option” for a networking service like Instagram; it’s how the service’s success is defined. In the same way that capitalism incentivizes Instagram to implement certain profit-increasing design changes, the very role of social media in society incentivizes its use. Therefore, to “opt out” of this digital world is to distance the self from society as a whole—a society now as alive “in real life” as online. 

To assume that Instagram app designers will tweak their values when it comes to designing the platform to be more “humane” is to neglect the role of profit in our capitalistic world. By the logic of the profit motive, Instagram will only become more and more profit-oriented with time. If we as users are to continue using the app, we must accept this. I am by no means suggesting that all users should delete their Instagram profiles. As much as I’ve come to resent Instagram’s design choices, my profile will remain active. Rather, I think reevaluating Instagram and other social media platforms as extensions of capitalism—a way in which we are not used to imagining them—is imperative. The goal of an Instagram user may be to engage and share content with close friends and family, but the goal of Instagram itself is to maximize earnings. At the very least, users must see Instagram for what it is: for-profit.

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun