Instagram was once a creative hub for sharing VSCO-filtered photos and scrolling through perfectly curated feeds of our friends’ lives, pets, travels, and food. Photographers and designers used it to showcase their work, and brands built a community of engaged followers. It was simple, unique and popular with young audiences — but times have changed.

In July 2021, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, proclaimed in a video on Instagram and Twitter that Instagram is “no longer just a square photo-sharing app”. This announcement came almost a year after the introduction of Reels to the platform in 2020. And of course, it had already introduced Stories, Live, and in-feed videos; Reels just cemented its new video focus.

Now, Instagram is trialling a full-screen, immersive home feed, putting video front and centre in 2022. Instagram wants to mimic TikTok’s success, but is that a good idea? We break down the changes and whether they signal a new, modern Instagram era or the end of the platform altogether.

Instagram is trialling a TikTok-style full-screen home feed

This change impacts all in-feed content and Stories, so whether you’re sharing photos or videos, if your posts aren’t in a 9:16 aspect ratio, they’ll have a blurred background. This means Reels will be prioritised, and square 1:1 photos will be rendered virtually obsolete.
More recommended content will appear in home feeds, most of which will likely be Reels. Many users already have this new feed layout; however, it’s still unclear if and when it will be rolled out to everyone.

Why is Instagram making these changes?

While Instagram used to be the go-to platform for young audiences, the platform lost many younger users to TikTok. A 2021 study found only 22 per cent of teenagers name it their favourite platform, coming in third after Snapchat and TikTok. TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2021, with 656 million downloads. Instagram fell behind, with 545 million downloads.

Instagram is not satisfied with its space in the social media landscape as an incredibly popular app for sharing photos, communicating with friends via DMs, and updating followers through Instagram Stories. TikTok’s rapid growth illustrated the power of video, especially for attracting and holding the attention span of younger audiences, and Instagram wants a piece of that pie. With this change, Instagram is looking to capitalise on the popularity of short and snappy video content in an attempt to mimic TikTok’s success.

Prioritising video content is a risk

It’s no question that TikTok’s quick growth and incredibly accurate algorithm can be attributed to its full-screen video content. A wealth of data can be collected from user behaviour on video content; watch time and speech recognition provide more data points than photo views. And full-screen content does favour a mobile-based experience, which is increasingly important, especially for social apps that want to stay in the game.

Now, photos will be less relevant on Instagram which is a major point of contention for people who use the platform to share their work, such as photographers, visual artists, and models. It’s also an issue for the average user who prefers to use Instagram to document their life and connect with friends and family. Given that Instagram’s biggest advantage is its social element rather than content consumption like TikTok, losing sight of this may put it on rocky ground.

For brands and emerging content creators, it’s becoming difficult to keep up, and these changes will only make it harder. 9:16 video content requires higher production quality. On top of that, Instagram’s strong ecommerce features are less beneficial for video content; while people can tag products in videos, it isn’t as seamless as in photos. Instagram may find that brands simply throw their hands up and divert their marketing budgets elsewhere.

Instagram is losing its originality

The benefit of using a variety of social platforms is that they all offer something different. Previously, people turned to Instagram to share images and TikTok or YouTube to get their video fill, with Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn offering unique places to connect and consume content.

When Instagram took Stories from Snapchat, it worked because it was an additional feature to the platform. When it introduced Reels, it was simply a new feature added to an existing, functioning platform. But by trying to compete with TikTok, it’s losing sight of its original purpose and the user experience. Instagram is losing its flair and value and it may not end well.

The current feedback is telling. The changes have been unpopular with users so far, with people saying that the captions are difficult to read and the blurred backgrounds are unappealing. Others say it encourages mindless scrolling and discourages engagement. Captions longer than a sentence are less likely to be read, and carousels, which were previously successful on the platform, are now difficult to navigate. We’re yet to see if average engagement levels will rise or fall – and if they’ll be able to compete with TikTok.

The social platform should focus on what it does best

Instagram is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. Instead of seeking more revenue, Meta should consider the user experience before it plummets along the same downward trajectory as Facebook. Meta should allow Instagram to keep its place as the number one photo-sharing social media platform; unfortunately, moves like this full-screen update make it clear that they’re seeking profit rather than considering their legions of users.

If staying in its lane isn’t an option, it should at least decide if it’s a video platform or an ecommerce and photo platform. Try as it might, the platform can’t have it both ways. People don’t scroll through endless videos on ASOS; they look at photos.

Rather than just copying other successful platforms, they could focus on improving the photo-sharing and ecommerce experience. Suppose they supported brands more wholeheartedly while also giving people a great place to connect with family and friends (which was why users signed up in the first place); they could create a unique, long-lasting, and even more profitable platform.

Final thoughts

#photooftheday might be dying, but does it have to be buried? Time will tell, but for now, the safest bet for brands is to focus on creating engaging 9:16 Reels and connecting with consumers across various platforms, rather than putting all their eggs in one full-screen Instagram basket.