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Why Instagram is increasingly going to feel like Facebook

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Expect the same old, same old as Instagram goes to the aid of faltering Facebook.

If Facebook’s manipulative newsfeed algorithms and heavy-handed advertising have you looking for a friendlier social-media alternative, you aren’t alone.

Facebook fatigue was a distinct trend before the Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach seriously dented trust in the world’s largest social network. For many, the scandal was a trigger to scaling back the time they spent on the network or to joining the #DeleteFacebook movement.

Facebook managed to add users in the first quarter of the year, but its growth and usage are stalling. That won’t be worrying its executives and shareholders that much because of the US$1 billion purchase it made in 2012 of photo-sharing app Instagram.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It seemed like a lot of money at the time, when Instagram was just another app vying for attention and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr ruled the roost. But Instagram has turned out to be Facebook’s saviour. Its base is surging – passing a billion users earlier this month (35% of Kiwis have an account) – and, based on its growth and Facebook’s ability to make money from advertising on it, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts estimate it would be valued at US$100 billion as a standalone business.

Instagram appeals to a younger demographic who see Facebook as being for old people. It joins YouTube and Snapchat as the platforms of choice for teens and millennials. If Facebook can hold on to those members as they age, it owns the future of social media.

Instagram’s appeal is that it is a more visual network than Facebook, with a simpler interface, less text, more photos and videos and fewer widgets and options to distract you. Successful Instagrammers post well-shot, colourful photos of food, fashion and breathtaking landscapes overlaid with filters that impart a warm, atmospheric glow.

There’s a reason for that. Social-media researchers have found that image-based social media is more likely to ease loneliness and boost happiness and satisfaction than text-driven platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Filtered shots of beaches and ice cream help us escape to our happy place and that means more followers, likes and comments.

Kiwi YouTube star Shannon Harris has added Instagram to her arsenal.

But there are signs that Instagram, too, isn’t as happy as it once was. Facebook’s imperative to make money has seen more adverts appear on Instagram. A switch from showing posts chronologically to having a computer algorithm serve up the most “engaging” posts has also been controversial. That is the same technology that sees your Facebook news feed strewn with the same posts again and again.

Instagram has also become the medium of choice for a generation of social-media “influencers”, such as Kiwi YouTube star Shannon Harris, who is paid by brands to spruik their beauty products. She has 1.5 million Instagram followers and a simple photo of make-up products can garner over 10,000 likes. It must be a great earner for her.

Facebook ingeniously moved to neutralise its main rival by mimicking Snapchat’s best feature – stories. This is a collation of snippets or “snaps” of posted content that disappear after 24 hours. Instagram introduced the same feature in 2016 and, according to Facebook, it has 400 million daily users. Snapchat’s growth has subsequently slowed.

But Facebook’s big play to cement Instagram as the dominant social network of the future came a couple of weeks ago with the debut of IGTV, its YouTube competitor. The IGTV app lets Instagram influencers, and anyone else with a video camera, post clips up to 60 minutes long. Instagram has typically hosted video snippets, with YouTube the domain of longer-form movies. That is about to change and, money, again is the driver.

Well-crafted videos engage social-media users for longer and therefore are more attractive to advertisers.

Bottom line: the new Facebook is increasingly going to feel like the old Facebook, but it will have more photos, fewer words and fewer of the things that frustrated you about it.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.