As Kylie goes, so goes the hordes?
Soon after now–24-year-old influencer and reality TV star Kylie Jenner tweeted that she was over Snapchat in 2018, the app’s stock took a nose dive. So when Jenner criticized Instagram’s recent shift toward video this week—she demanded the company “Make Instagram Instagram again,” and abandon an unpopular shift to be more like TikTok—people paid attention.
This must mean Instagram is changing course, right? Nope—it’s full steam ahead with video, said head of Instagram Adam Mosseri in a much-mocked message deliver via video (naturally).
Is Instagram stupid to ignore its third-most-followed user? (As well as its seventh most-followed: Jenner’s half-sister Kim Kardashian shared the same image.) Maybe not. For one thing, Jenner and her family’s relationship to, and financial reliance on, Instagram extends far beyond her claim to “just want to see cute photos of my friends.”
The rise of the Kardashians and the rise of Instagram are so intertwined that one can scarcely imagine either existing without the other. “When Instagram started, it was people taking pictures of their food and their meals,” said MJ Corey, a self-appointed Kardashianologist who runs the Kardashian Kolloquium Instagram and TikTok accounts, which turn an academic lens on the family. Kim Kardashian, Corey continued, dared to buck the food pics. “She at the time had this image, still does I guess, of reveling in vanity. She’s taking selfies; she’s being mocked for her selfies; she stakes a claim on selfies by publishing a book about selfies. You might have hated her for it, but it was a natural human instinct to want to engage with faces more than food. She stoked this flame across Instagram that ended up making Instagram be what it is.”
With gummy vitamins, waist trainers, and fit tea, the Kardashians ushered in the influencer economy and the sponcon that went with it, which eventually gave way to mogul-dom for the half-sisters: Kardashian has a successful line of shapewear, and while it was laughable for Forbes to call Jenner a “self-made billionaire,” as the magazine did with a 2019 cover, she is pretty dang rich thanks to her cosmetics empire.
A year after giving her their cover, a Forbes investigation found that Jenner is not actually a billionaire. (Debunking the “self-made” part requires no investigation.) Though Jenner pushed back, it’s a good reminder to take reports of Jenner’s massive success and influence with a grain of salt. This brings us to the whole tanking-Snapchat’s-stock episode: There’s plenty of reason to question the idea that she alone was responsible for that. As a 2018 Vox piece laid out, Jenner’s criticism coincided with the app rolling out a very unpopular redesign that had a lot of users up in arms, in the same way she is not the only person who has problems with the direction Instagram is headed right now.
There is at least one interesting contrast between Jenner’s point about Snapchat and her point about Instagram, however. At Snapchat’s height, Jenner was one of its most popular users. The app helped solidify her a Gen Z icon, so she had every reason to talk it up. Instead, she lamented that she never even opened it anymore. This time, Jenner’s plea is much more obviously self-interested. Of course she wants Instagram, an app she and her family have mastered, to never change.
“For Instagram to be trying to keep up with TikTok probably threatens the Kardashians because the TikTok algorithm and the overall structure of the app is not what the Kardashians know and have built their domination of the influencer economy on,” Corey said. “They’ve designed their lives, even their faces, to be grid-friendly. They just don’t know—do they do the dances, do they do the trends? Do they do the little vloggy, look-into-my-life thing? But we already get that from the show. I do believe there’s a real dilemma.”
Think of all the old millennials you know who refuse to download TikTok. The Kardashians’ fear of TikTok isn’t so different—even though technically neither Kim Kardashian or Jenner are millennials: Kardashian is on the Gen X cusp and Jenner is firmly Gen Z. It might be more accurate to define both of them as Generation Instagram, Corey said. This has been an evolution for Jenner: In her Snapchat (and before that, Tumblr) days, she was the family’s most visible representative of the youth, but she has since graduated to private jets and motherhood—in other words, a very Instagrammable life.
Come to think of it, Jenner and Kardashian are so influential that it seems like they should have better ways to advocate against Instagram’s recent changes than re-posting memes in their Stories. “These could be private conversations,” Corey said. “They have the access.” Kardashian memorably (and unsuccessfully) lobbied Jack Dorsey for Twitter to add an editing function, Corey recalled. She guessed that another motivation behind criticizing Instagram might be that Kardashian and Jenner wanted to align themselves with the hoi polloi.
Even so, those same hoi polloi are moving over to TikTok in droves, whether the Kardashians want them to or not—so the family can’t afford to completely ignore the video app altogether.
“I could almost feel somehow their anxiety about TikTok before we really saw it or before we saw them make moves towards TikTok,” Corey said. “Then they finally got on using their kids. The kids were the liaison into TikTok because I think they were looking at TikTok and saying, ‘This is a younger kids’ app. This is a Gen Z app. How do we matter to Gen Z?’ ”
The first Kardashians to get on TikTok were indeed kids Mason, Penelope (son and daughter of Kourtney Kardashian), and North (Kim’s oldest daughter). The adult Kardashians eventually followed, and now many of them have their own accounts. Some of them are even pretty popular, though not nearly as popular as their Instagrams.
“The Kardashians know they have to be relevant on every significant medium,” Corey said of TikTok. “They’re probably gonna figure it out. They always do. But they’re Instagram gals.”