If you’ve noticed a change to the way your favourite social media platform works lately, you aren’t alone.
Even Kylie Jenner, arguably the most online person in the world, seemed to be getting fed up with it this week when she griped about recent changes to Instagram’s algorithm that prioritizes more short videos from brands and strangers over content from people and companies users choose to follow.
“Make Instagram Instagram again,” Jenner complained to her 360 million followers. “Stop trying to be TikTok I just want to see cute photos of my friends. Sincerely, everyone,” she said in the story, which her sister, Kim Kardashian, then shared to her own 330 million followers.
For the family that essentially invented the concept of social media influencers to push back against attempts by social media companies to influence what we see, it speaks to just how meteoric TikTok’s rise has been.
Founded in 2016, TikTok has seen explosive growth during the pandemic to become the most downloaded app in the world in 2022, racking up billions of users.
It only allows users to share videos, and it works with brands and influencers to promote products in those videos. This business model is starting to eat into profits at more established social media companies.
Financial results hint at changing landscape
Meta Inc., which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, revealed financial results this week that hint at just how fast the social media landscape is changing.
For the first time in its history as a public company, Facebook saw its revenue shrink in the three months up until the end of June. And it expects that trend to continue this quarter.
There’s a certain irony to the evolution of these platforms in that Instagram began as a service that just shared still photos and its runaway success resulted in Facebook buying the app. Then video became the latest trend after the introduction of video messaging app Snapchat, prompting Facebook and Instagram to introduce features that allowed users to share short videos.
Instagram’s latest push for more video is just the latest step in that evolution, according to Richard Lachman, associate professor at The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“Facebook and Instagram were seeing reductions in their size of audience, so they are trying to chase where the buzz seems to be,” he said in an interview.
So far, the chief weapon in Facebook and Instagram’s arsenals seems to be trying to mimic what TikTok does.
Instagram head Adam Mosseri explained what the company was up to in a video this week — tellingly, that video was released on TikTok itself — confirming suspicions that it was “experimenting with a number of different changes to the app.”
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“I need to be honest. I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time,” he said, acknowledging that many users are upset with the changes. “It’s not yet good,” he admitted, bluntly.
Pushback from super-users like Jenner has seemingly prompted a rethink, as the company told CBC News in a statement this week it would be “pausing” the full-screen test and “temporarily decreasing” the number of recommendations users will get from outside their network.
To its rivals, the lesson of TikTok’s runaway success is that people want more video content. And to the chagrin of some of their users, these rivals are adjusting their business models accordingly to offer more video — whether users want it or not.
“The problem with these platforms is they’re based on endless [engagement] growth,” Lachman said. “But ultimately they’re competing for a limited number of hours [so they] end up duplicating one another’s features, not always successfully.”
He says the attempt to be all things to all users sometimes “doesn’t sit so well with the users who already know and love the platform.”
Different platforms have different uses
Marlie Cohen, a Toronto-based fitness and parenting influencer who posts on both platforms under the name Kale & Krunches, says she’s keenly aware of the shift, both as a content producer and a user.
“As a creator, I understand that the eyeballs are really on TikTok right now, and that’s because the algorithm is feeding us the type of content that we want to see,” she said in an interview with CBC News.
“I understand that the other apps want to keep up with that and keep our attention on them as well, but as a consumer, I find it extremely frustrating because I go to different platforms for different things.”
Cohen joined Instagram in 2015, and says it quickly became her preferred medium because of the sense of community she could build. By 2017, she had enough of a following that she was able to leave her corporate job and become a full-time content producer.
While her Instagram following has grown to 60,000 followers today, she says she’s managed to double that figure on TikTok in far less time.
Users pushing back
Because TikTok’s algorithm prioritizes content that people respond to regardless of the creator’s number of followers, Cohen says it allows talented creators to find an audience quickly.
But for many Instagram users, the platform’s attempt to mimic TikTok’s success just means they’re being offered content they don’t necessarily want.
On the streets of Toronto this week, many users expressed disappointment with Instagram’s experimentation.
“It takes away from the original version,” Rachel Wong told CBC News. “I personally like the pictures more.”
Taking pictures for his Instagram feed in downtown Toronto, Oleh Dehtiarov said he prefers Instagram to TikTok for the same reason.
“I’m more into pictures. I don’t mind, like, a few video shots, but I feel like if it’s just videos, they can get quite annoying.”
Instagram’s sudden push of video over photos also ups demands on content creators, who have to produce higher-quality content to rise above the fray.
That’s where people like Drake Andrews and Kyle Pretzlaff come in.
They’re the founders of Kozen Creative, a digital-focused marketing studio that helps people and brands fine-tune their online presence for a social media audience and create content that gets noticed on TikTok.
Unlike text or still photo-based platforms, they say video has massive marketing potential if done properly.
“You get to show your personality. You get to be a little bit more authentic and connect with the viewer,” Andrews told CBC News in an interview, while shooting video for one of his clients, a barbershop.
“At the end of the day it’s going to be way more important and impactful.”
The fight to stay relevant
Andrews says Instagram’s strategy is necessary for it to stay relevant.
“In any business you’re going to have to adapt to what’s happening in the market,” he said. “You don’t want to be the Zellers. You don’t want to be the MySpace.”
While Andrews acknowledges that the user backlash is very real, he doesn’t see video as a flash in the pan and says those who don’t adapt will be left behind.
“It’s going to become dated and people are going to treat it more like Facebook, where it’s left to the older generation,” he said of Instagram.
“The younger generation isn’t going to go into it because they already have TikTok and they have adopted to the platform.”
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