“Does Instagram totally suck now?” It was a question first posed to me by my sister, about a month ago, and soon it became a question echoed across the greater internet, culminating in headlines this week when our own social media dilettante, Kylie Jenner, brought up the issue. “MAKE INSTAGRAM INSTAGRAM AGAIN,” pleaded the billionaire in an all-caps story on the app. “I just want to see cute photos of my friends,” she added in smaller print.
The app has, indeed, become nearly insufferable of late, consumed by video reels, sponsored ads, and weird little “suggested posts” by unheard of accounts. Though these are conjured by algorithms tailored to each user, the ones clogging my feed seem totally random: endless blond women preparing vegan salads, mammals acting rascally, tacky makeovers of houses I could never afford in cities I’ve never visited. Those who are looking to see “cute photos” of their friends are probably spending a lot of time wading through this kind of junk.
Of course, this change is by design, a purposeful push by Instagram to prioritize videos and thus operate more like its extremely popular competitor, TikTok. Jenner and her fellow detractors are correct: Instagram sucks now.
But also, Instagram has sucked before. For the first few months of its existence, in 2010, it actually went by the name Burbn, and offered a confusing mix of services: people could “check in” at certain locations, earn points for hanging out with other users, and post photos of themselves doing so. The app developers soon observed that most people were only using Burbn to post photos, so they pared it down to just that (plus some filters to make those photos prettier) and changed its name to be a mash-up of “instant camera” and “telegram.” I created an account at the tail end of college, and my very first post was a sideways image of a hideous gingerbread house I’d decorated. I didn’t understand how to rotate the image (or build a gingerbread house, apparently) and was not bothered enough to try at either. The post has exactly one like. Even that is more than it deserved.
Those early days were probably when Instagram was at its best: low stakes, low engagement. I posted photos of my friends, of my cats, and of a few particularly scenic hikes. I commented innocuous stuff like “Miss you!” and “Cute!” on other such posts by my loved ones. Especially as Facebook became more and more a home for multilevel marketing schemes from my high school classmates and confusing political screeds by distant relatives, Instagram became the preferred social media app among my cohort. It did what it was supposed to do: connect us.
But if there’s a world where a popular app can thrive by doing one very simple job, this one isn’t it. It wasn’t long into Instagram’s existence that it was acquired by Meta (née Facebook) for a whopping billion dollars. “Instagram” became a verb. Startups swooped in to help influencers monetize posts—perfectly ordinary people started hawking clothing and makeup to their friends, and then sizable followings. Then, the algorithm rewarded high cheekbones, poreless skin, and monotonously plump lips. The effects of this are visceral: Instagram has grown more toxic, a place not just for selfies and memes, but also where people form parasocial relationships with celebrities, feel bad about their bodies, and contemplate ads for cheap facial fillers.
As for me, I started scaling back on the app long before it got so unpleasant. My account is private, and I only accept requests from people I know (or “know” as defined by the loose standards set by this internet age). I follow a few ballet companies to stay clued in to performance announcements, and a few brands to stay clued in to sales (how else will I know when to pull the trigger at J. Crew?). I follow exactly one fitness influencer, and only because I actually do her workouts (and, OK, her toddler is adorable). I have a little system to help keep the sense of calm and control in place: I don’t keep the app on my phone’s home screen, so when I log on it’s a conscientious choice usually made while waiting in line for something.
I’m not some sort of internet ascetic for all this, and I actually do see the value in social media, professionally and personally. But I know that for myself, the version of social media we are living with now is only fun in the smallest of servings. I had to stop following Emily Ratajkowski, for example, because exposure to her diamond-cut abs and private beach vacations while standing in line at Walgreens to pick up prescription acne gel turned my thoughts spiteful. This has nothing to do with @EmRata (who I am sure is just lovely) and everything to do with me, but still. When I’m in a particularly wretched mood I can find it hard to muster the energy to feel happy for people I actually like.
Even this limited amount of engagement—just a few minutes a week scrolling down the feed and tapping through friends’ stories—is enough to know who among them is getting engaged and who’s buying a home; who’s having a baby and who’s having a book launch (and who, improbably, is having both a baby and a book launch). I know to avoid checking the app altogether unless I’m feeling sweet enough to smash the heart button on their milestones. A lot of people feel this way. Selena Gomez is one of the most-followed celebrities on Instagram—by definition, one of its most visually desirable—and has for years said the overwhelm of the app drove her off the internet altogether: “I was tired of seeing other people’s lives. After that decision, it was instant freedom.” (Presumably, she has a team now posting the updates that populate her grid).
Who is the app for, anymore? Kylie Jenner herself may or may not truly be annoyed by the new user experience, but she has a clearer reason to want the app to favor images of “cute photos.” She and her sisters have long used the platform to sell their products and their images (which are, in a sense, another product). Their inability to master the new short-form videos favored by Instagram threatens to undermine their influence. But that influence still may be strong enough to get them what they want: In the days following Jenner’s post, the company’s stock dropped 3 percent.
In an adroitly noncommittal video, Instagram’s head, Adam Mosseri, promised the company remained “committed” to users. But the bad version of the app won long ago. Maybe now is the time for users to finally break their commitment to Instagram, instead.