Around 2015, Facebook decided it would become a video platform. To do so, it dumped a whole bunch of money on news organizations (including this one) so that we could actually make said videos. The problem was, a lot of us who were tasked with this job did not actually know what we were doing, and it resulted in a lot of videos that were, ultimately, really shitty.
The reason I can say this is because I was one of them. Sure, I made a lot of videos that I was proud of once we hired experienced producers and editors and directors to guide me through the incredibly complicated process of making a good video, but a sizable chunk were poorly thought-out and poorly executed Facebook Lives that roughly 20 people watched, if Facebook’s numbers were to be believed, which, the entire industry found out later, they weren’t.
Seven years on and Facebook is still desperate to get us to watch videos on its platforms, this time in the form of Reels. Reels is a rather shameless TikTok copycat that lives in a separate tab from Instagram’s main feed. But just as IGTV failed to become a competitor to YouTube, Reels hasn’t been able to replicate the magic of TikTok’s addictive and powerful algorithm. Instead, Facebook has ensured the success of Reels by shoving its videos in your face every time you open the Instagram app. During Facebook’s most recent earnings call in February, the company maintained that Reels was seeing “tremendous growth,” but it’s unclear whether people are watching because they’re seeking it out or because Instagram won’t let them avoid it.
For creators who built big followings on Instagram by sharing beautiful or interesting images and well-crafted captions, the platform’s frequent attempts at driving video have been a longtime grievance. Not only are videos significantly more work (and more expensive) to make, many users don’t want to watch them. “When I’ve polled my audience on whether they prefer to see photos or videos from me, they say photos,” says Rosey Beeme, a fashion blogger with 180,000 followers on Instagram. “But I’m not seeing the interactions from those people because my work is no longer being pushed to them. The videos that perform the best for me are the most boring to create.”
“I hate making videos,” says Annie Rauwerda, the college student behind the popular account Depths of Wikipedia. “I post screenshots from Wikipedia, which are static, so it takes 20 times longer to make a video.” In December, she got an automated pop-up message from Instagram inviting her to its creator fund, offering her a few thousand dollars per month if she continuously hit a quota of 9 million video views. “It’s hard to pass up,” she says of the money, which she uses to pay for school. But it means that a lot more of her time is spent making content that neither she nor her followers are particularly seeking out.
Small business owners in particular are lamenting Instagram’s prioritization of video because of the costs it adds to maintaining engagement and follower growth. “It’s been terrifying because I was really good at taking beautiful photos and writing long emotional captions, and suddenly, for the past six months I’ve been mourning the loss of value of that skill,” Sana Javeri Kadri of the spice brand Diaspora Company recently told the New York Times. She’s seen her posts go from getting typically between 2,000 and 3,000 likes to around 200 or 300.
It was fall of 2020 that Beeme, the fashion blogger, noticed her still images receiving significantly fewer likes and comments. “I get that they’re competing with TikTok, but I think there’s still space for a good photo app, a little quiet space on the internet,” she says. “A lot of us got on Instagram in the first place because we love photography, and it’s so interesting to have to recalibrate your own interests to accommodate an algorithm.”
No one loves complaining about the Instagram algorithm more than the people who use it most. Concerns over “shadowbanning” and Facebook’s confusing and inconsistent practice of removing accounts it deems suspicious are constant worries for people who’ve built their livelihoods on the platform. After years of begging Instagram to return to its original chronological timeline, last week it finally caved, offering all users the ability to switch between its standard algorithmically generated feed to a tab marked “Following” that shows a reverse-chronological timeline of all the accounts they follow. There’s also another option called “Favorites” that shows up to 50 accounts of their choosing.
BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos has persuasively argued that this will suck even worse than the standard algorithm, and what people are actually nostalgic for is the version of Instagram where far fewer people were actually using it and before it became the be-all, end-all of a person’s lifestyle resume. As long as Instagram incentivizes creators to continue making videos with literal cash or at least more views, your feed will still find a way to force you to consume them.
This is not to say that video-focused social media platforms are bad — quite the opposite! YouTube and TikTok have succeeded in their ability to generate new art forms and have attracted hugely talented creators. Where they’ve failed is when they try to become everything for everyone. After the success of TikTok, YouTube launched its competitor project YouTube Shorts, while TikTok is now coming for YouTube’s bag by increasing the maximum length of its videos to 10 minutes. Nobody seems to want any of these things besides executives and shareholders demanding growth and greater market share at all costs.
Perhaps what’s most annoying about Instagram’s demand for more videos, even shitty ones, is it forces artists and celebrities to give their users more access to themselves — their opinions, their behind-the-scenes lives, their processes — when it could ultimately be detrimental to their craft. Musicians in particular have lamented feeling pressured by their record labels to post on TikTok and Instagram to seem more “relatable.” “I remember having a meeting with my record label where they were like, ‘We just need you to post every Tuesday about your flaws and maybe you could post some pictures with dogs,’” said pop star Charli XCX on a podcast last spring. “I stormed out. I was like, ‘This is fucking ridiculous!’ It was crazy. That’s not real.”
Earlier this month, Doja Cat satirized the process of making forced videos in a sponsored TikTok for Taco Bell, complaining that she had to write a “fucking jingle” about its new Mexican pizza. “Before I post it I just want you to know that it’s contractual. I know it’s bad,” she told her 22 million followers. That the disclaimer was clearly part of the brand deal shows how commonplace it is to acknowledge that making videos takes work and it’s not always fun.
Aaron Bruno, the lead singer of the band AWOLNATION, can relate to this as he promotes his latest cover album. “One of the aspects of artists I’ve always loved the most is that they had a bit of mystery behind them, and that’s becoming almost lost,” he tells me over the phone.
Social media isn’t going anywhere, obviously. What’s happening here is the natural tension between what is good for tech executives and what is good for the people who spend time on their platforms — a balance that isn’t always totally straightforward. As long as tech companies and influencers are compelled to grow as large as possible as quickly as possible, there will be people who get left behind, people who get swallowed by the algorithm, and people who feel like they’re missing out by not opting in. “I wonder if there’s going to be some pushback or a pendulum swing into less content and more mystery,” Bruno adds. “Whenever someone figures that out, I’m gonna be all about it.” Same!
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