Updated Aug 4, 2022 - Technology

Instagram's TikTok-ification drives an exodus to rivals

Illustrated animation of the Instagram logo's color draining.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Photographers, designers and other creative types turned off by Instagram's pivot to TikTok-like features are tentatively moving to alternative platforms.

Why it matters: Instagram has long been a digital gallery space for artists of all kinds, helping them find an audience, connect with other creatives and land paid gigs.

  • But the Meta-owned platform's gradual evolution into an ad- and shopping-heavy app that favors short-form video and algorithmically selected content has left the future of digital art-sharing in flux.

The context: Instagram has been de-emphasizing still imagery for years. But more recent changes, such as a focus on shopping and a big increase in the amount of suggested content that appears in users' feeds, has forced a reckoning.

  • Instagram became a worldwide phenomenon thanks to its focus on "visual storytelling," writes photographer and tech journalist Om Malik. But, he says, it's now "all about marketing and selling substandard products and mediocre services by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper."
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri recently walked back some of the most controversial changes, though he signaled that the Instagram of yore will not be returning.

A handful of rival apps and platforms are reporting recent spikes in user activity.

  • They include relatively new upstarts, like Glass (for photographers of all kinds) and Grainery (for film photographers, specifically).
  • Even old favorites like Flickr — a pioneer in digital photography-sharing that owned the loyalty of serious photographers in the mid-2000s — are seeing a boost, and some creatives are turning back to Tumblr, another longtime artist haven. Still others are headed to VSCO, which got its start as a photo editing tool before pivoting into a sharing platform.
  • Others are also experimenting with e-newsletters.

What they're saying: "We started working on Glass ... because we felt like the photo community that existed on Instagram that built the back of Instagram doesn't exist anymore," says Glass head of community and marketing Daniel Agee. "2012, 2013 Instagram is never coming back. And that internet is never coming back."

  • Agee says that Instagram's ad- and sales-supported model have made it a crummy place for artists trying to share their work.
  • By contrast, Glass is subscription-based, at $4.99/month.
  • That Glass is ad-free makes its design notably cleaner than Instagram's, and Agee says the site even prohibits brands from signing up to hawk their wares or services.
  • The subscription fee could incentivize users to be active, positive participants.

VSCO President Eric Wittman, meanwhile, says that when he came on board a little over a year ago, "we had a great discussion and basically said, 'look, our core user base are these intentional, more serious creators, if you will, especially photographers.' And we want to really lean back into that and really focus on inspiration."

  • VSCO, which costs about $30/year, recently introduced Spaces, a kind of group gallery functionality. "That's a massive investment that's our biggest team at the company," Wittman says.

Yes, but: None of these services is likely to rack up anywhere close to Instagram's billion-plus users. Glass' user base, for example, is in the mid-five-digit range.

  • Choosing a strategy that doesn't depend on mega-scale can make long-term sense — smaller online groups built around specific interests (like some small subreddits) tend to be healthier environments than huge free-for-all networks (like Twitter).
  • But scale helps creatives seeking to build reputations and sell stuff. Some will end up embracing video, and many will simply get used to Instagram's changes.

The big picture: This is all part and parcel of the longstanding tension between creators and platforms.

  • Creators have relied on apps like Instagram and YouTube to reach their audiences — leaving them exposed to the whims of the platforms and the kinds of content they prioritize.
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