As the world’s largest social network, a leading harvester of personal data, and a major hub for viral content and news, Facebook long ago lost the sense of intimacy that originally made it such a hit with young people. Somehow, Instagram has managed to hold on to some of that magic, despite its 2012 acquisition by Facebook and subsequent booms in growth and ad revenue. For many people, including teens, Instagram remains a place to share photos and videos that they wouldn’t feel comfortable broadcasting on Facebook.
That may be partly because the content you see on Instagram is still largely personal in nature. The absence of clickable links means your feed is mostly photos taken by your friends and family themselves—no one is Instagramming news articles, fake or otherwise. And the app enhances the impression of relative privacy and familiarity by limiting your main feed to posts from people you’ve explicitly chosen to follow.
That is, it did until now. Instagram confirmed to me a TechCrunch report that it has launched a new feature called “Recommended for You,” which inserts posts from people you don’t follow in your main feed. The Verge spotted a test of this feature earlier this month, and it’s now rolling out widely. The suggested posts appear in a group of three to five, and it seems they’ll be selected for you based on what your Instagram friends have liked. For now, the module crops up near the bottom of your feed, although it stands to reason that Instagram will move it farther up if it proves to boost engagement. You can hide the module temporarily, as Instagram’s help page explains, but you can’t opt out altogether.
This comes in the same month that Instagram began allowing people to follow hashtags, which is another way of bringing strangers’ photos and videos into your main feed. That feature uses software to highlight occasional trending posts from the hashtags you follow, and the Verge’s initial review was positive.
The two changes expand Instagram in different yet related ways. “Recommended for You” adds an element of what’s called “discovery” in social media parlance. That is, it shows you stuff you didn’t explicitly ask to see and might not have found on your own. Until now, that sort of content had been relegated to a separate “Explore” tab, reachable via the app’s search icon.
The ability to follow hashtags, meanwhile, makes Instagram more of an interest-based network, like Pinterest or what’s left of Google Plus, in addition to a social network. But it’s a form of discovery as well.
So what does all of that actually mean for the future of Instagram and how we use it?
One safe bet is that it will lead to more engagement, at least in the short term. Instagram wouldn’t be doing this if its data suggested otherwise. The company feels confident that people will use the app more avidly if there are more great pics and Stories in their feeds, even if those come from people they don’t follow.
In the long run, however, there’s some risk that this shift will erode Instagram’s fundamental appeal, which is the feeling that when you open the app, you’re among friends. A colleague who has already seen the “Recommended for You” feature in her feed told me the suggested posts “feel like three ads in a row.” She wished Instagram would insert just one in your feed and let you scroll sideways for more, rather than stacking them vertically so you have to scroll through all of them. It’s like getting separated from your friends in a crowded bar.
To say that the posts look like ads is not quite as damning in the context of Instagram as it would be elsewhere: The app’s ads are far more appealing than those of most other social networks, and they feel more like part of your feed. That’s a big part of how Instagram has managed to stay popular despite what can seem like a pretty heavy ad load. And perhaps if all those ads haven’t scared people off, then these new discovery features won’t either.
But it’s also possible that there’s some threshold at which injecting unasked-for content in people’s feeds will backfire. The history of content-discovery apps and interest-based networks is littered with failures, probably because people are more interested in their friends than they are in their “interests.” Facebook’s social underpinnings have allowed it to grow in all sorts of directions, but in the process it has sacrificed much of what people once loved about it. It has traded goodwill for ubiquity.
It’s understandable that the company would want to make Instagram bigger, too, and there’s room for it to do that. But if Instagram’s role in the Facebook universe is to continue attracting teens and others turned off by Facebook itself, then making it more Facebook-like could be counterproductive. Namely, it could push people back to Snapchat, which put privacy and intimacy at the core of its product from the outset, in an explicit rejection of Facebook’s panopticism.
The irony is Snapchat itself is now eyeing similarly risky moves in an effort to keep up with Instagram. Cheddar reported this week that Snap is working on a new product called “Stories Everywhere,” which would make Snapchat Stories available outside its app for the first time. Details are scant, but the report suggests the company might do this by building a web player that allows sites to embed Stories, or by giving other apps access to some of its content. That’s probably a smart move, given Snapchat’s slowing growth. But making Stories less exclusive and more public also moves Snapchat away from its roots in a way that might limit its ability to capitalize on Instagram’s changes.
Perhaps, in the long run, intimacy just isn’t very compatible with publicly traded social media companies’ frantic race for global domination. If you want a space for just you and your friends, you might have to find it IRL.