Phone with social media icons next to a laptop.
Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

The Internet has been abuzz following a post by Kylie Jenner, an influencer famous for being the sake of being a famous person. On Instagram, where 360 million Instagram accounts follow her, she said Instagram must stop trying to copy TikTok and remain Instagram so she can see cute photos of her friends. First, to be precise – the original post was created by Tati Bruening, who has 315,000 followers. 

Kylie being Jenner that she is, added “Pleaseeee” and took the attention away from the original post. Soon, family doyen Kim Kardashian and others from the clan of famous Internet people joined in. It got the headline machines humming. And the melee has become a significant news story – I mean, it’s not like we are dealing with war, climate crisis, or inflation. 

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What has Instagram done that the Kardashians & the Jenners are so upset? Earlier in July 2022, the company decided any video under 15 minutes can and will be converted into a “Reel.” Reels, in case you were not following, are a clone of short-form TikTok videos. Recently, TikTok made it so that the videos on the service could be up to 15-minuteslong. So obviously, Facebook had to match them feature for feature. 

Instagram will take the video posted by any public account – someone like Kylie “The Crying” Jenner – and automatically push it into a recommendation algorithm, only to be shown to other accounts based on how people react to that video/reel. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you are Kylie, Kim, or Krayzie; your videos (aka Reels,) their popularity, and the engagement around them are no longer in your hand. The algorithm is the boss.  

And that is why I wasn’t surprised that the Jenners and Kardashians were upset about this move. This new development renders their hundreds of millions of followers less valuable than they once were. Kylie is rumored to make between $650,000 to $1 million per post from companies and brands who wanted her to promote their wares. They could point to 360 million followers as a proxy for their power and reach. 

What the clan is really complaining about is the harsh reality that changes limit their ability to monetize their hundreds of millions of followers. If they can’t get the reach, or the engagement, eventually, their hundreds of millions of followers aren’t as important.

In his book, Get Rich or Lie Trying, journalist Symeon Brown astutely noted that on “Twitter and TikTok, viral users require wit. On YouTube, personality pays. Yet on Instagram, the way we look is carefully self-curated for the consumption of others. In other words, the platform thrives on lustful thirst.” It is why any change to a TikTok-like platform threatens the likes of Jenner. 

To be relevant, they need to do something more than just look cute and sexy.

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As I pointed out earlier on Twitter, the reason Facebook is making these massive and radical changes to be more TikTok-like is that it fears that the Chinese-owned social network has become a clear-and-present-danger for the Metamachine. 

TikTok users spent 19.6 hours on average per month on the app, according to data.ai. Already average time spent on TikTok exceeds Facebook. More than 40% of Gen Z spends more than 3 hours a day on TikTok. No matter how you look at it, Facebook is in mortal combat with TikTok. 

The front-facing camera, the portrait mode, full-screen video, and algorithmically generated content have made “attention” a zero-sum game. Once you are locked in, you are not going anywhere else. And this is what has freaked Zuck out.  

“We’re sort of in this pretty intense period for the next 18, 24 months,” Mark Zuckerberg is said to have noted in a late June all-hands meeting. “It’s possible it’s even a little bit longer.” He is back at his ruthless best.

And it is pretty evident if you read this excellent report on The Verge. The article outlines a series of challenges the company is facing, both internal and external, and how Zuck is dealing with it. 

Copying TikTok as fast and as completely as possible, even at the risk of alienating its current very active and large user base, is the kind of move Zuckerberg makes when he feels his back is against the wall. I have watched Zuck for a long time – from the earliest days of Facebook – and know that once he digs in his heels, there is not much anyone can do. 

Everyone eventually finds out that there is only one king in the Zuckverse.

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As for Kylie, Kim, and millions of others hoping to go back to the old ways of doing things, it is not going to happen. Instagram’s chief Adam Mosseri said as much in a video message he shared on Twitter. He made three points — and in bold text, I am trying to decode them for you. 

  • “New full-screen version of feed is a test for a few percentage of people out there. This full-screen experience, not only for videos, but for photos will be more fun, engaging experience.” (As I said above, full-screen video is a way to lock in the attention – the algorithm will keep recommending things to keep you logged in.)
  • “I know a lot of you out there love photos to that said I need to be honest, I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time we see this even if we change nothing.” (We got to do video, or else we would lose out to TikTok. It doesn’t matter, we will make you watch more videos.)
  • “The third thing I want to talk about the recommendations, recommendations are posts in your feed from accounts that you do not follow. The idea is to help you discover new and interesting things on Instagram that you might not know even exist.” (Social is dead, long live the algorithm.)  

To sum it up, Mosseri (whom I once cruelly compared to Tariq Aziz of Facebook) is saying that it doesn’t matter what you want. It is what Zuck wants. As a result, Instagram is now all about video, video, and video. And that isn’t going to change. Mosseri is saying that you might love photos, but Instagrammers, you can go pound sand. You and your photos are going to live with little or no attention. And while you are processing that bad news, let me tell you (on behalf of my boss) — your friends, social relationships, and your communities are dead – now you exist solely in the obeisance of the algorithms. 

Oh, by the way, thanks for doing an excellent job of helping train our algorithms and helping make our visual data more accurate. From now on you, what you will see when you will see, and who you will see are going to be determined by the algorithm.

In summary, even the illusion that social media is about social, friends, and connections is over. Peo le don’t define the platform; it is the platform that owns you. Not even Kylie or Kim.

July 26, 2022. San Francisco.

Earlier this morning, I read a piece about Wordle in the New York Times and decided to find more articles about the red-hot word game. Even Google has an easter egg that would make you believe: Wordle is a cultural phenomenon. 

But why?

Matt Baldwin, a social psychology professor at the University of Florida, offers six reasons why we Wordle

  1. An “Aha” moment, even when you lose.
  2. A pleasurable relief from pandemic-related negativity.
  3. It is bingeproof.
  4. It is a shared experience. 
  5. An opportunity for social comparison
  6. Everyone is doing it & we want to be in the herd.

“Sharing it on Twitter is a way of saying like, ‘look at me, I’m also doing Wordle just like everyone else.’ That makes me a good group member. Shared experiences give a lot of meaning to life,” Baldwin noted in the article. “They help us orient toward what’s good, what’s meaningful and what’s worthwhile.”

Wordle, in many ways, is reminiscent of the “ice-bucket challenge” when we forgot our differences and got behind a worthy cause. 

January 24, 2021. San Francisco

What do Instagram & TikTok have to do with Asparagus?

Long before the pandemic made in-person coffee conversations a nostalgic memory, I was chatting with a friend about the increased frequency with which large technology companies copied their rivals. Microsoft was quick to imitate Slack with Teams. Instagram ripped off Snap Stories and brazenly acknowledged that in its initial announcement. And today, Facebook-owned IG announced … Continue reading What do Instagram & TikTok have to do with Asparagus?

The illusion of improving social media platforms

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Tinbergen, writing for the Washington Post have applauded the social media platforms’ recent efforts to reign in “hate speech, misinformation and posts that potentially incite violence.” These posts were coming from the US president and many of his supporters. When asked what I thought of this step forward, here is what … Continue reading The illusion of improving social media platforms

Hello (Again) Ello

Five years is a long time, so it isn’t a surprise that Ello might have faded from the minds of the people. And after being an initial skeptic, I have quietly become an occasional visitor — more like a lurker on the network, secretly following some fantastic photographers and their creativity.  Many are not even my kind of photographs and visuals, but the sheer quality of images is stunning and one can learn so much from these works. Here is a link to the page of trending photos on Ello. But that isn’t all. There are so many amazing artists including this photo/visual surrealist.

It is the antithesis of the likes-fueled, influencer-juiced world of Instagram and its algorithmic overlordship of creativity. If Instagram is the machine and crowd-powered enemy of creativity for the sake of creativity, Ello is just a place where there are fewer judgments about the art. It is not just about photos. There is art, fashion, music, design, architecture — and it feels like the East Village long before the faux-pubs, condos and the Whole Foods turned it into urban-suburbia.  Continue reading “Hello (Again) Ello”