Instagram Is Dead (It Just Doesn’t Know It Yet)
The first of the major selfie apps certainly won’t be the last
I still remember the first time I saw an Instagram photo about nine years ago. My friend Aaron was in a decently-successful rock band, and he showed me this app he’d just installed. “You basically just take a photo and then use a filter to make it look better than real life. It’s really great for showcasing band life.”
Instagram has come along way since Facebook got scared of Twitter and bought IG for $1 billion, but in some ways, it’s essentially still the same thing: a platform for snapping selfies and presenting a curated (and some would argue) distorted view of reality.
While Instagram is still the current master of showcasing #TheCuratedLife, the behind-the-scenes reality is that its eventual demise is much nearer on the horizon than it would like to admit.
Like its parent company, the megalithic social media mammoth faces 10 potentially insurmountable challenges that will lead to its inevitable extinction in the years ahead.
1. Their Growth Is Already Slowing… Quickly
Instagram announced they’d reached 1 billion daily active users back in June 2018… and they haven’t issued an update since. Its year-on-year growth dropped to single digits in 2019, and eMarketer predicts no end in sight:*
If there’s one thing we know about the stock market, it’s that “slowing growth” is essentially the same thing as “losing money.” Investors are already searching elsewhere, knowing that Facebook et al can only go downhill from here.
*It’s worth noting that Social Media Today thinks these numbers are actually quite generous, and I agree. By 2025, Instagram will almost certainly be on an irreversible negative-growth trajectory. (By comparison, TikTok is expected to grow by triple digits in most markets.)
2. Gen Z Isn’t Interested
For the under-18 set, Instagram is already the bronze medalist of social media services. Stories may have halted a mass exodus to Snapchat, but Reels isn’t going to win over native TikTok users en masse.
Gen Z wants end-to-end encryption, they don’t want to be tracked, they’re strongly opposed to online bullying and hate speech, they don’t like their faces to appear publically for more than a few hours, and they don’t like ads. So why would they download an app that spies on its users in a bunch of different ways and is currently being sued for videoing its subscribers even when they’re signed out?
3. Commercialization = Ossification
The financial model for apps like Instagram is a little mathematical absurdity called unending exponential growth. If Instagram can’t find a way to get back to double-digit user growth (which it likely can’t) or find a way to double the amount of time people spend on their site (which it definitely can’t), then the only other way to grow is to extract more money from its current users:
From a marketer’s perspective, Instagram is quickly becoming Facebook Ripoff Round #2. When Facebook Pages launched, the engagement levels were insanely high and everyone piled in. Then Facebook ratcheted back the organic engagement levels to as low as 2% and made marketers pay to reach their own fans. They’re now doing the same thing to Instagram marketers, with organic engagement already reaching as low as 3%.
Imagine building your email list to 1,000 subscribers, but suddenly you’re only able to email 30 of them without forking over a hefty fee. With no promise of a profitable return. It’s unconscionable.
From an influencer’s perspective, their entire business model is under siege. Brands would rather pay influencers to market their products on Instagram versus paying Instagram to market their products, so it’s in IG’s best interests to ruin influencers.
It’s just pure math at this point: Organic engagement will continue to drop until brands will switch to paid advertising instead of paying influencers.
When that inflection point is reached, what reason do influencers have to stick around? Not much. For new people trying to get in on the influencer game, good luck breaking in unless you’re already a celebrity. The reality is that other apps will make you richer faster, and other apps will certainly make you more famous far faster. As one teenager recently told me, “TikTok is my best chance of getting famous right now.”
From the user’s perspective, the influencer game is over. You can no longer believe anything you see on Instagram.
- How do we know that private plane photo wasn’t staged in a fake jet?
- Is that really their house or just a purpose-built Instapartment?
- How do we know which items are really used by our heroes and which ones are paid product placements?
- How do we know we aren’t getting taken in by one of the dozen IG scams out there?
- Did they grow their audience by using follow-unfollow bots?
- How do we know they didn’t just buy all their followers?
And even if they are all real followers… who cares anymore? (Call it the Instagram Paradox: If 10 million people can call themselves influencers, then no one’s an influencer.)
On top of all that, there’s the base fact that Instagram users are being exposed to more ads than ever before. But it begs the question: If IG’s hellbent on extracting more revenue from its content creators and content consumers… is it also increasing the value it returns to them?
The answer, of course, is nope.
4. Instagram is the Walmart of Apps
At this point, IG has onboarded too much functionality in its quest to be everything to everyone: Facebook-merged Messenger, posts, Stories, going Live, video chat, IGTV, Reels, on and on. Rather than being one thing like TikTok, it’s basically trying to be… Facebook.
5. It’s Toxic
If COVID-19 has taught internet users anything, it’s that we need to be far more gentle on ourselves.
- According to a Royal Society for Public Health report, “rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen 70% in the past 25 years.”
- CNBC reports that, of all the major social media apps, Instagram is the “most likely to cause young people to feel depressed and lonely.”
- TIME Magazine has called Instagram the “worst social media for mental health.”
Instagram is a 24/7 comparison game that none of us can ever win. Even for ultra-popular influencers, homo sapiens just aren’t adapted for the anonymous praise of strangers as our leading source of self-worth.
As further research helps us understand the true toll that IG is taking on our mental health — and we all start taking our digital mental health far more seriously — we may expect many to abandon the platform or drastically alter their consumption habits.
6. Its “Beauty” Is Rapidly Diminishing
IG is like Pinterest — scroll fast enough and everything looks the same. Thankfully, Gen Z absolutely hates curated Instagram influencers. They’re not interested in artfully-stage illusions of the perfect life. The Instagram aesthetic, though slowly evolving, is too homogenous for the most individualized generation in history.
7. It’s Downright Boring
How many more girl-in-canoe photos do we really need to see?
Or tent holes?
Or Highland cows?
There’s now an entire Instagram account dedicated to amassing collections of unoriginal and uninspired IG content. As one former influencer put it:
“It’s the same filters, same light, same poses, same people; same, same, same.”
8. Mindful Millennials Are Growing Up
More and more of my friends are ditching Facebook, especially after watching “The Social Dilemma” or reading eye-opening books like “The Shallows,” “Irresistible,” “Hooked,” or “Digital Minimalism”… and Instagram is next on the chopping block. (Several of my friends have already ditched.)
Many more users will start doing everything in their power to unhook themselves from Facebook’s second-most powerful addiction algorithm with an arsenal of ad-blockers and time-restriction apps.
Millennials are now officially too old to be taking selfies anyway
At some point — perhaps after — you just realize it’s embarrassing to be overly-narcissistic. While obviously taking selfies isn’t the only thing people do on Instagram, it can certainly trend toward self-centricity… perhaps not so much for everyday users, but certainly for the big influencers. Unlike platforms like Medium — which are about teaching, helping, instructing, and informing others — photo-first platforms tend to point the lens in the mirror a little too often.
Plus: They’re starting to care about privacy
Millennials may have to live with their high school photos being out there forever, but they don’t want photos of their kids online. They can privately and securely send their child/dog/dinner photos directly to their friends and parents without the app that Zuck swallowed whole.
They’re discovering that they don’t need media to be social
Millennials are the last generation to remember those wonderful days of analog friendship, and once there’s a widespread COVID vaccine, expect them to do the hard work of building up real relationships instead of media-mediated digi-connections. Expect to see significant engagement declines as they get back to the work of real-world living, and expect Millennials to abandon Instagram in vast numbers as soon as a viable contender emerges.
They want to better-utilize their downtime
The reality is that Millennials can no longer spare 28 minutes per day on a platform with so little life-return. There’s a reason why Medium.com is now in the top 100 most-visited websites in the world — people are looking for a higher return for their time; a better bang for their digital buck.
9. Old People Aren’t Signing Up
It took Boomers a small eternity to get on Facebook, and when they did, they silver-tsunami’d the site faster than a Denny’s salad bar. Now, Facebook’s bright-blue logo reminds many teenagers of their grandma’s new hair dye. If the 60-plussers do adopt Instagram — and they show few signs of wanting an app that accentuates their wrinkles — it will be too little too late to save the platform, and will certainly drive away as many users as it attracts.
10. They’re Losing Public Trust
The IG spying scandal isn’t going away…
Shadow-banning is pissing off influencers…
The Feds aren’t going to go any easier on Facebook’s monopoly…
Users are tired of ads, turned-off by influencers, and wary of algorithms…
Zuckerberg polls lower than most Republican presidents post-second term…
All of this inevitably leads to Instagram’s collapse.
No, it’s not. While Instagram isn’t going away anytime soon — it still has over one billion daily active users — if Myspace taught us anything, it’s that when the world’s biggest social media site collapses, it effectively does so overnight.
It’s the Network Effect but in reverse.
For those unfamiliar with Metcalfe’s Law, the theory posits that “the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. As the physical cost of the network grows linearly, its value grows exponentially.”
Let’s say everyone in a social network is worth $1.50. A network of two people is worth $2.25 ($1.50 x $1.50). A network of three people isn’t worth $3.00 — it’s worth $3.38. Instagram’s network of one billion users is currently worth more than $100 billion to Facebook.
It’s we, the collective users, who give Instagram 100% of its value. The reality is that when your 10 closest friends and top 10 favorite influencers quit IG or switch platforms, you’ll never log in again.
While Instagram’s deflation may take longer than others due to its massive size — and, like Myspace, it will certainly continue to exist for decades in some form — it’s safe to say that its best days are in the past. Because it’s only a matter of time before the network effect breaks down and the value chain unravels itself.
So What’s Instagram to Do?
Not all is lost for the second-biggest jewel in Zuckerberg’s crown. While Facebook continues on its journey toward becoming the next Myspace, Instagram is actually benefiting from its parent company’s downfall.
But is eating roadkill really the best way to maintain fighting weight?
The reality is that Titanics can’t make 90-degree turns. The bigger the company, the harder the pivot. There’s a reason a pod of orcas always beat the humpback. It’s already impossible for Instagram to keep up with TikTok and other apps that are coming online — even when they do, they feel like copycats, not innovators. No one remembers who was right behind Usain Bolt.
The reality is that Instagram will be around for a very, very long time, but in the same way that Myspace and MSN and the last remaining Blockbuster are still around: in a seriously diminished form.
The Good News: Opportunities Abound
In the end, Instagram’s demise will actually be very good news for marketers, influencers, entrepreneurs, startups, social media users, and the public at large.
- For marketers, more social media platforms will create more marketing options, more niche specificity, less ad competition, and far more affordability.
- For influencers, let’s hope future platforms are compelled to publish their organic reach percentages and compete for maximal free engagement. Imagine a social media site that acted more like an email list and guaranteed every post you publish will be delivered to 100% of the fans who’ve intentionally chosen to see your stuff. Even Dwayne The Rock Johnson would make the switch.
- For entrepreneurs, there’s the opportunity to build bona fide, elegant, innovative Instagram challengers for the first time in nearly a decade. As individualist-consumerist society grows, expect to see a proliferation of niche-specific sites in the years ahead, perhaps even user-funded. (It’s not unlikely that we’ll see groups of influencers join together and start their own niche-specific sites, too.)
- For social media startups, there’s the opportunity to learn the lesson that all social media companies have heretofore forgotten or ignored: When you start to abuse your content creators and make them pay to reach their own audience, they will find another digital home. Code accordingly!
- For social media users, expect (or demand) to see the introduction of a User’s Bill of Rights, including beefed-up privacy standards, far-less addictive algorithms, innovative protection from foreign trolling, and ad revenue sharing. It’s our presence and content creation that gives these platforms all their power and profit, and it’s time they start treating us more like customers and contributors and less like the product being sold.
- For the public at large, spreading our digital interactions across a larger swath of sites could lead to better protection of our data, an in-built algorithmic bias towards positivity instead of anxiety-and-depression-inducing content, and far more value per user-minute invested.
All told, the social media companies of tomorrow have much to learn from the decline of today’s biggest firms. For marketers and startups, we can expect to see a drastic increase in the quality and quantity of authentic engagement with users, which is a really big win for everyone.