People on social media are always angry about something, but rarely have so many been angry about the same thing at once. Last week, holders of two of the biggest accounts on Instagram, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, put out a call to the company to “stop trying to be TikTok,” voicing something that has been irritating users all over the world about the platform: the fact they’re not seeing pictures any more.
It turns out this is intentional. Instagram has admitted as much, and Facebook is doing it too: pushing more video onto people’s feeds instead of pictures. It’s another iteration of two age-old digital media stories: the insatiable yet inexplicable need to “pivot” to short-form video, plus the need to copy whatever the newest company is doing—in this case, TikTok.
It’s the same question that gets asked every time a social media platform changes in a way that most people seem to find frustrating: who is this change for? What is the point of making the middle button on Instagram one that takes me to random videos of strangers’ weddings, a furniture company’s new compact desk, haircare methods for people with ringlets—and then, next to that, a page of shopping options? Why do companies with several billions of dollars seem to have no idea what it is that their users use their platforms for?
It feels intuitive. I don’t want to watch a video on Instagram. I don’t want to go on Facebook at all, but if I did, I wouldn’t want a video there either. TikTok works because it does one thing—videos—and does them well. Instagram worked because it did one thing well: still images. My desires when looking at Instagram, and it seems that I share these desires with most users, are simple. I want to see pictures of my friends having a nice time. If I want to pummel my brain with frenetic videos, I will go on TikTok between the hours of midnight and 3am and do just that.
There are several reasons why the move away from pictures online is annoying. Firstly, nobody who is old enough to remember 9/11 should be making TikToks anyway. It is simply undignified. This is an obsolescence we are going to have to accept. And with all due respect to my friends, I don’t want to see their amateur attempts at moviemaking. Most people are able to take a passable photograph these days, but I don’t need shaky cam footage of a burger someone has made with some kind of pseudo-cookery show voiceover.
I have nothing against the moving image. I have enjoyed several films in my time. But at the risk of sounding like a pensioner waving his fist at the passage of time, what’s so wrong with pictures? A pet. Some trees. Timeless, delightful. Wasting time on Instagram is never a very worthy pursuit, but at least when it was mostly pictures of people I know wearing nice outfits or being funny on holiday, I enjoyed the things I was wasting my time to see.
Perhaps because social media is relatively young, people seem unwilling to accept that social media platforms have a natural lifespan. I suspect Facebook is already dead to most people under 35, and absolutely everybody under 18. Logging into it feels like going for a stilted drink at Christmas with a friend who you don’t really talk to any more because they got weird and boring in the 12 years since you both left school.
But it never seems to be enough for a platform to have some of our attention; they need all of it. They need to be the place where we do everything: take pictures, shop, post videos, sell things, discover new interests, message friends, argue. And the risk Facebook and Instagram are taking is that, instead, they will become places where we do nothing at all.