The year Instagram became Facebook
December 16, 2020
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Instagram spent much of the past eight years fighting to maintain its independence from Facebook. In 2020, the fight was over.

Instagram has rolled out a series of features that are thoroughly Facebookian in nature. They’re largely focused around getting you to use the app for longer (and also tend to feel messy and incomplete). It’s hard not to see this as the moment that Instagram succumbed to Facebook’s worst tendency: a focus on growth at all costs, even if it means making a product that’s less enjoyable to use.

The changes are numerous. Facebook Messenger was integrated into Instagram DMs, a beat-for-beat TikTok clone was created and given its own section within the app, the primary “post a photo” button was tucked away into a corner, and an entire tab was given over to shopping.

The most telling change was one of the less explosive ones: it was a tweak to the app’s classic photo feed. Instagram now displays an endless row of algorithmically recommended posts once you get through the pictures your friends put up. (On my feed, I’m mostly presented with vibey pictures of European models, with some ads mixed in between.)

This is a simple growth hack (see: Facebook injecting news stories and your friend’s friend’s dad’s questionable political group post into your News Feed), but it’s the kind of cheap trick that Instagram had avoided for a decade. It seems plainly antithetical to a goal outlined by Instagram’s founding CEO, Kevin Systrom, who said that any time spent on the app “should be positive and intentional.” At the time, Instagram was adding an alert that told you when you were out of new posts in the feed, which served as a gentle nudge that you might be able to close the app and move on to something else.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg increasingly applied pressure on Instagram over the years to, in essence, play more like Facebook, despite an initial promise to leave the company alone, as detailed in Sarah Frier’s No Filter, a chronicle of Instagram’s rise. The pressure culminated in Instagram’s co-founders walking out the door in late 2018, when they were replaced by Adam Mosseri, who previously ran Facebook’s News Feed. While the app mostly had a quiet 2019 on the surface — it tweaked the camera interface, hid like counts, and restricted more problematic content — behind the scenes, there was a significant shake-up of Instagram’s top leadership taking place, and more orders were starting to come down from Facebook proper, The Information reported last year.

That set the stage for this year, when those changes became visible to users. The home screen layout, which — aside from the addition of story bubbles at the top — had largely stayed unchanged since Instagram’s founding, has been shuffled around to make room for two new initiatives. The most notable of those, Reels, is a TikTok ripoff with no original ideas that’s purely meant to crush an innovative and competing product. The other addition, the Shop tab, presents an underwhelming array of product posts in a way that mixes the confusion of a Pinterest page with the blandness of Google Shopping ads.

None of this is to say Instagram has been “ruined” or even changed all that dramatically on the surface. The app has always been teeming with brands and influencers, Stories had ruthlessly sidelined Snapchat as the hot new app years ago, and Instagram’s aesthetic has long since gone from cultural phenomenon to ubiquitous cliche. It’s still fun to look through your friends’ photos, and the new features aren’t strictly bad — Reels offers creators another avenue to promote their work, and shopping is an obvious, if undercooked, addition to Instagram.

The difference is that so many of Instagram’s prior changes felt like Instagram. In 2020, the changes felt like new services shoehorned into Instagram so that the moment we got bored, we could find our next distraction without closing the app. If that feels familiar, maybe it’s because that’s what Facebook does, too. This year, Instagram didn’t just build more services — its service starting demanding more from you.

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