The Short-Lived Horizontal Instagram Update Was, in Fact, Good

Instagram logo displayed at a conference.
The internet was briefly mad at Instagram on Thursday.
Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Thursday morning, Instagram caused a lot of stress by briefly rolling out an update. Instead of continuously scrolling through photos vertically, as one would scroll to read most webpages, a number of users found themselves required to tap or swipe to usher photos along one at at time, horizontally, as one would through Tinder profiles. Or maybe a physical stack of snapshots.

People hated it. (Sample sentiment tweeted at the company: “Have you been drinking?!!”) The apparently accidental update was rolled back with such speed that I missed it. It “was supposed to be a very small test that went broad by accident,” wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, on Twitter. Was the update a test for a future permanent change? A truly meaningless glitch? Instagram’s not saying. But I don’t think it’d be so bad if it had stuck around.

Why did an interface-tweak to an app cause so much ire? After all, Instagram Stories, the ephemeral version of the Instagram feed from which posts disappear after 24 hours, relies on a similar horizontal flick-through to navigate. Despite departing from the traditional way we navigate both Instagram and the larger web, Stories became widely used after their rollout in 2016. One of my colleagues said that the new tap-through feature disrupts the smooth experience she’s become used to in the main feed: “Instead of being able to easily scroll back-and-forth through everything,” she complained, “it made me look at every single picture one at a time.”

But I contend that we’d get used to this, just as we’ve adjusted to countless other tweaks that social media apps and sites have made. Stories started off horizontal to distinguish them from “regular” Instagram posts, so they were easy to accept. We’re used to continuous vertical scrolling on our feeds, so having that scrolling taken away is jarring.

Considering how time-sucking apps like Instagram have become for me and everyone I know, I’d welcome a readjustment period: An app that is novel and therefore harder to use is an app that’s easy to use less. Part of what makes Instagram feel so good to use (in the moment at least) is that after a short period of learning how to use the app, diving in is seamless. At the slightest hint of boredom with reality, you can grab your phone and effortlessly be enveloped in a wonderland of influencers and filtered smiling friends. A change in the fundamental motion of interacting with the app disrupts that immersion, at least until you become used to the new motion.

Plus, the short-lived update more accurately reflected the way that Instagram orders photos, which, since 2016, hasn’t been chronological. A more stacklike experience implies a little more randomness and is more in line with an algorithm that stacks the deck however it sees fit.

I feel fairly alone in my positive feelings toward this accidental update (There were a lot of angry tweets!) But the ire around the update probably seemed more widespread than it actually was. Instagram users who felt fine about the change don’t have much to gain by taking to Twitter to express their fine-ness. Negative emotions toward a tech company are more fun to share than neutral or even positive ones in 2018. After all, our privacy has been violated and our free time is being taken over by scrolling, and on both counts it’s happened somewhat invisibly. For frogs being gradually boiled, a concrete instance of change is an opportunity for anger and expressions of helplessness to crystalize. Maybe even a healthy one.