For a long time now, Instagram has turned with the tides of capitalism, allowing many of its users to sink in the process. Once known as a simple photo-sharing app, Instagram later became an elevating platform for influencers and brands, shifting the narrative from followers and likes to one centering products and sponsorships. 

Facebook, the owner of Instagram, rolled out an update last week replacing the “create post” function with an icon for Reels, Instagram’s attempt at imitating TikTok. The company also replaced the notification button with a shopping cart icon, which takes the user to an online marketplace organized for shopping within the app. These changes relegate the notifications tab and the “create post” function to the upper right-hand corner of the screen.

These updates represent the company’s larger prioritization of consumerism on the platform. For the most part, influencers are the only individuals really experimenting with Reels, and brands are the sole promoters of products on the shopping tab. While Instagram used to serve as a space for individuals to share snippets of their lives with a larger community, the app is now optimized for those pushing goods and services. 

The Instagram algorithm also reflects this shift in intention. One key component of the new algorithm is overall engagement. Posts that receive more engagement, meaning likes or comments, will typically appear at the top of a user’s Instagram feed. Even if someone is more interested in seeing their best friend’s photo than an influencer’s advertisement, the influencer’s advertisement might appear first because it receives more engagement. This function of the algorithm causes branded content to appear more often than personal content. 

In a recent Instagram story, the internet star and YouTube influencer James Charles negatively remarked on the new update. Charles maintains a following of over 24 million on Instagram and has achieved significant success with making money through the platform. His rate for sponsored posts is currently cited as $38,400 per Instagram post. 

"They moved everything around and it makes it very, very clear where their priorities lie, and that is making money and only making money," Charles said. "Nobody f—ing asked for Reels, we have TikTok for a reason.” 

On social media, many users are taking to Twitter to echo Charles’s sentiments. Some believe that Instagram should “stay in its own lane,” instead of trying to copy platforms such as Snapchat, TikTok and Amazon with its recent update. 

“Instagram is slowly changing from a social media platform to an online flea market,” wrote Twitter user @kmattthewildcat. This tweet received 46.2K retweets and 398.3K likes, as of print time.

For most users, discontent and frustration with the update are commonplace. The new shop section serves to integrate consumer interactions more seamlessly into the platform, but it has the potential to alienate the creativity and agency of the user in the process. 

For example, my shop section is currently recommending items such as a light blue knit beret from cult brand “House of Sunny” and a collection of natural hair products from a brand called “Fable & Mane.” The beret costs €87, and the hair products are around $30 each. All of it is available to purchase through the app. 

When promoting these products, Instagram’s machine learning technology has already taken into consideration my likes and preferences without my explicit consent or knowledge. Before the new update, I probably would have never discovered these items, but the update turns the entire Instagram experience into a shopping one — not a creative one.

McKinsey & Co research reveals that Generation Z, which makes up a majority of Amherst students, values expressions of individual truth. The research notes that for Gen Z, “consumption means having access to products or services, not necessarily owning them. As access becomes the new form of consumption, unlimited access to goods and services (such as car-riding services, video streaming and subscriptions) creates value. Products become services, and services connect consumers.”  Therefore, is the Instagram update the wrong move for the company? 

Perhaps Instagram would be more successful in a model that allows consumers to rent some products like the company Rent the Runway, rather than optimizing the platform for solely purchase-power. This would allow individuals of more socioeconomic backgrounds to access the shop page, rather than just individuals who have the money to buy from expensive niche brands. 

Overall, Amherst student and aspiring fashion designer Matthew Ezersky ’22 sees the update as a positive change. He enjoys how his notifications are kept separate from other aspects of the app and appreciates the visibility that the shop section will give up-and-coming brands. 

“Yeah, I think it’s solid,” Ezersky said. “As for the brand visibility, I don’t shop on Instagram and probably won’t start now. Brand visibility will help small brands that can’t run digital campaigns on the scale of a Gucci or a Prada.” 

Instagram was once the favorite app of Generation Z. It was a place that fostered fantasy and offered an escape into alternative realities. Yet, with its turn towards a consumerist model, Instagram may establish itself as another source of capitalistic dread. Ultimately, the app will have to distinguish itself from other platforms and make a return to creative expression in order to survive for years to come.

Arielle Kirven '21