A Brief History Of The Instagram Devolution

I was definitely not an early adopter when it came to Instagram — I think I got on the app towards the middle of 2012, so about two years after it came out. But it quickly became my go-to social media platform, especially when I first got married.

After I got married, I found myself without roots or a support network for the first time in my life. It was scary and lonely, but Instagram served as a thread to the people I loved so much. I loved seeing their smiling faces, reading about what they’d been up to, and scrolling through their goofy photos. It helped make it feel like we were still connected, even though we were so far apart. 

But Instagram has really devolved over the years. And I’m not okay with it.

The original Instagram was a place for you to follow people you knew and liked. People would share their goofy, artsy, highly filtered, perfectly square photos of whatever they happened to be doing. Snapshots from their tropical vacation, the multi-course meal they made, or mini-golfing with their family. It was just people sharing glimpses into their daily life with the people they cared about. There were no unwritten rules or “social media expectations,” people were just having fun using the app and interacting with their family and friends. 

Then Instagram changed to be completely focused on “personal aesthetic.” Rather than uploading photos that meant something, people started uploading photos that fit their theme — which usually meant a particular color scheme. And that’s when what I like to call the “artistic pictures of nothing” took over. If somebody went hiking over the weekend, they no longer shared a photo of themselves at the peak of the mountain, because it didn’t fit their aesthetic. Instead, they’d upload a closeup of a red leaf on the brown ground, or a photo of the cloudy blue sky.  Instead of thoughtful, meaningful captions, their character limit had to be used up explaining what was happening when the photos were taken, because the photo itself was of nothing. These pictures of nothing were certainly not worth a thousand words.

Down the road, the focus on Instagram likes escalated to the extreme. People were using apps to determine the best time to post. They’d use special calculators to make sure they weren’t under or over-posting. They would use “Like Apps” to get bots to spam their posts with likes and comments (sometimes for free, often times for a price). And if their photos didn’t get as many likes or comments as they wanted, they’d delete it and try again at the next best time according to Hootsuite.

Because of that focus on Instagram likes, people were posting less often and quickly deleting a fair share of what they did post. So Instagram introduced stories in order to encourage people to be more active on the app — but that didn’t quite work the way the average user expected. It definitely helped take the pressure off of getting more and more likes, but it caused other issues. Seemingly overnight, sharing permanent photos became uncool. Posting regularly was taboo. Temporary stories were the way to go. People would share dozens of photos to their stories but rarely posted permanent photos. People that posted more than once a week were seen as desperate, lame, and out of touch, and the more they posted, the fewer likes they got. 

Fast forward to today, and Instagram is barely a shell of what it was a decade ago. The search tool and suggested posts steer the focus away from what your family and friends are posting and places the emphasis squarely on what photoshopped tweens are saying you should buy. The constantly changing algorithm means that as you scroll, you see more ads and celebrity content than content from the people you actually follow. And there is still this notion that sharing photos from your real life, whether in stories or permanently, is uncool. The occasional “artistic picture of nothing” is still okay, but stories are pretty much reduced to whatever memes or reels happen to be trending that day. So what that means is we are all sharing the same thing thousands of other people are sharing. It’s become a place to mindlessly scroll through sales pitches and unattainable luxuries and people desperate for fame and fortune. There is no originality, creativity, or personality, and frankly…there’s no point.

One of my old childhood friends (@saraheshblog) shared a photo + caption that really resonated with how I feel about Instagram these days:

“I feel a bit disgruntled at what this space currently is. I miss the old days, before stories were a thing and before reels reeled us in. I miss seeing people’s daily photos and reading their thoughtful captions. I miss the engagement and the lighthearted feeling of fun that this app used to be.

I’ve debated completely leaving this app.

However, I wonder what would happen if I (and everyone else like me, who longs for what used to be here) would get back to the basics again.

A beautiful picture. A thoughtful caption. Leaving comments. Responding to comments. And refusing to be part of the never-ending drama of news and politics and controversies.”

I think her idea is very wise. Instagram is, unfortunately, still the main place to connect with the people we care about. To peek into their lives, to get that feeling of doing life together, despite being worlds apart. Leaving the app won’t make our connection greater, but maybe we can find a way to make Instagram work for us again. It will take self-control and intention — but maybe, just maybe, we can make Instagram into an app worth using again.

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