Instagram Has a Problem

In April 2012, the world was shocked by the news of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. The deal seemed ridiculous to many: the service with 30 million users and zero revenue couldn’t possibly cost so much. Five years down the road, it doesn’t take a tech expert to acknowledge the foresight of Mark Zuckerberg. Instagram has grown its audience to 700 million users and is well on track to become a multi-billion advertising platform. There is no reason for shareholders not to rejoice. Except there is, but surprisingly few people talk about it.

Take a close look at your followers list. Check out the followers of your friends and family. Chances are, a big chunk of them are, well, not real followers. They are a variation of online shops, freelance beauticians, fitness instructors, and social media promotion websites. If you are like most people, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear a story of a guy who was mourning the loss of his dog on Instagram only to discover a comment “☀️Keep posting DOPE content!☀️” from a spam bot.

“Not a big deal,” — some may argue. “It’s the nature of the beast.” But is it really? Let’s take a look at the stated promise of Instagram. At its core is the idea of “a home for visual storytelling”, “a community where people can capture and share the world’s moments.” But can you really call Instagram your home for visual storytelling when half of your personal audience is fake bag sellers and mani-pedi artists? Does Instagram encourage you to share more world’s moments when half of the comments to your posts are from spam bots? Color me doubtful.

Instagram is addictive, and this will continue to be its strength. Its user experience has been perfected that way for years (Nir Eyal, an expert in behavioral design, covers the topic beautifully in his book “Hooked”). But even more addictive is the real promise of Instagram – digital fame. Everything in Instagram’s UX today screams “Hustle more and we’ll put your content in front of more people.” In essence, for the vast majority of people and businesses on Instagram, the purpose is to achieve elusive digital fame and the measure of success is their number of followers. As a result, the users are incentivized to chase followers instead of producing quality content.

Make no mistake: followership is important not only because it works. It’s important because Instagram decided that it should be. Tumblr or VSCO, for instance, don’t make the number of followers the first thing you see when you open a user profile, and they seem to be doing just fine. In fact, the quality of their content is much higher than that of Instagram.

To be fair, I’m sure the team has to make many difficult choices every day, and the tension between growing the user base and ensuring quality content is not a trivial one. At the same time, it’s also difficult to oversee how eerily similar the Instagram of today is to the email of early 2000’s. Back in those days, every spam email and every ad banner was a reminder that you were being taken advantage of.

On December 4, 2012, the Instagram community organized a one-day strike in an attempt to call attention to the spam problem. Five years later, the problem is still there. And this, I believe, is what should concern Instagram. The success of Google came on the ruins of companies like Yahoo and Aol, who failed to deliver a seamless user experience. Unless Instagram acknowledges the elephant in the room, there is a high chance a new service will emerge on the ruins of the old spammy one.