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Is this the beginning of the end for Instagram?

Cover image for Is this the beginning of the end for Instagram?

Photo: ian Dooley

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

It has been a rocky month for social media – and a not-so-promising beginning to a new year. Years of debate have raged over the role of platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the content they host, and the impact it has – ranging from filter bubbles, to “fake news”, to campaigns against minority groups resulting in violence in Myanmar, have all brought to bear the responsibility of becoming mainstream portals to the Internet of Everything.

 It was not until the storming of the US Capitol Building on January 6th, however, that social media sites one after the other took to the move of banning Donald Trump from their platforms – marking a turning point in their otherwise-impartial stance to content. Regardless of why this move was made, the timing does play well to the start of a new administration, which is far less favourable to the tech giants. Indeed, with Facebook already facing anti-trust litigation in the US following hearings last July alongside other big tech CEOs, it would seem the tide is turning against what has been until now a prolific expansion in the face of inadequate legislation.

The legal side is one thing – after all, Trump’s threats to TikTok did little to halt the app’s incredible usage boom over lockdown – but should the consumer view of social media platforms shift as well, there could be dark days ahead indeed. Cue fashion house Bottega Veneta, which has, in a bold move for a member of the fashion industry, just wiped all of its socials clean off the map.

While this could be a PR move in its own right, which would not be unprecedented, there’s a certain logic to a high-end brand with low-key “if you know, you know” values removing itself from social media, particularly Instagram known for its flaunting influencers and emoji-laden captions. This is all the more so given Instagram’s recent UX update, which has placed shopping first and foremost in its menu, in a push to bridge the gap between ad placement and purchase point. While perhaps a practical move from some perspective, it is certainly a use case being pushed on users rather than catering to them and turns what started as a 2000’s edgy-hipster polaroid’s photo editing and sharing app into a flashy shop window which also dabbles in second-hand TikToks, longer-lasting SnapStories and memes mostly derived from Twitter. In short, the app is getting cluttered and a bit confusing; no place for high-end fashion, it seems.

While before the pandemic, Instagram was largely for sharing fancy photos and “self- branding”, over lockdown the rise of authenticity became far more important – resulting in the year-on-year doubling of weekly average usage for TikTok and roughly 10% increase for YouTube, while Instagram and Facebook remained largely level (source: MIDiA Research Consumer Survey, Q4 2020). While Instagram’s weekly average usage has not dipped, if brands which value their quality of message are starting to drop off, the app could be facing a cultural tipping point where it may lose all grasp of high-end relevance.

The jury is still out – but the outlook is not great, as the media giants, most over a decade old, scramble over each other to adopt the same features and continue perpetual growth in a market which is already mostly saturated. Meanwhile, the shadow of regulation looms larger, and as has been proved over the last few months with the cataclysmic crash of Donald Trump’s standing, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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