Is Instagram Becoming Cheugy? The Declining Interest In The App Among Gen Z And Millennial Women

By Andrea Mew··  9 min read
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Sure, Instagram hasn’t hit “Live Laugh Love” territory, but something seems super passé about the app lately.

Though I definitely belong to Gen Z, I was a late bloomer regarding social media. Part of this was because I didn’t have my first smartphone until halfway through high school and the other part was because I thought I was being edgy by protesting anything mainstream. 

But I gave the photo-sharing app Instagram a shot once I got an iPhone and had fun snapping stylistic shots of mundane things in my high school life to give my friends a glimpse into the aesthetics I vibed with. During my edgy protest phase, I watched the platform morph into something entirely different from what I had grown to know from afar and simultaneously saw my peers grow interested in Vine and then TikTok. Turns out, the year I rejoined Instagram, 2021, coincided with the app taking a decline in popularity among my generation and the one before me.

If Twitter is for spewing spicy words, YouTube is for sharing cat videos, Facebook is for sharing family milestones, and TikTok is for silly short-form videos, what role does Instagram even play anymore during its identity crisis?

Most recently, a collective cry from Instagram consumers and creators including A-list celebs like Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, made its way to their headquarters with a plea, "Make Instagram Instagram Again. Stop trying to be tiktok I just want to see cute photos of my friends". Since then, Instagram has announced its plans to roll back some product changes and we've even seen a small shift in our feeds, although Meta put out a statement seemingly still standing by their long-term vision, "We recognize that changes to the app can be an adjustment, and while we believe that Instagram needs to evolve as the world changes, we want to take the time to make sure we get this right”.

The problem seems to be that Instagram wants to be everything to everyone and that their goal is for users to dedicate their time to Meta and Meta alone. Nevertheless, Instagram's audience has made their desires known and it's clear that if the company continues to go down this path, it will ultimately lead to their downfall.

But, let's back up for a moment and ask the question, "where did it all go terribly wrong?"

Content Curation Is So Yesteryear

A lot changed with Instagram after it was purchased by Facebook in 2012 and then saw some c-suite changes in 2018. Adam Mosseri, who took over as Instagram’s CEO after founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger left, even admitted that the platform was “no longer a photo-sharing app.”

15-second video sharing to compete with then-popular app Vine was introduced in 2013, but since then Instagram has doubled down on its video content capacity with widescreen videos, IGTV’s vertical videos, Stories (which seemed suspiciously similar to Snapchat), and Reels (to compete with TikTok’s unmatched popularity). To this day, Instagram is still adjusting its video content options to TikTok’s in a way that satisfies our dwindling attention spans, as they just merged all video content with Reels.

But do you remember the days of yore, when Instagram revolutionized cellphone photography? “Avocado toasts are documented, filter choices define you, and suddenly your besties are basically professional photographers,” said Teen Vogue back in 2016, when perfecting your Instagram persona was all the rage.

If you were on Instagram at this time and you wanted any notable online presence, you needed a curated feed. It went further than coherent photos, though. Instagram users needed their full profile grid to achieve an aesthetically pleasing first impression. This of course also included filtering your photos directly on Instagram or through editing apps like VSCO Cam, which led to the VSCO-girl persona.

Fashion microbloggers and photographers alike could rival the feeds of high-street brands like Gucci, Prada, or Burberry who would try to leverage their brand and storefront through storytelling content creation. Instagram’s fashion and beauty-centric roots, as Vogue called them, made it even easier to be retrofitted into a “self-contained shopping app.”

Halfway through 2020, Instagram diversified even further by creating an immersive shopping experience through Instagram Shopping. There, a user could create their shop for free and connect content from their Instagram Feed, Reels, or Stories to be shoppable. E-commerce features have snuck their way into every nook and cranny within the app, even recently evolving to be able to process payments through DMs.

The Reign of the Insta-Famous Influencer

But before that, we were absolutely inundated with the Instagram influencer. Anyone could become the creative director of their own personal brand. 

Vice described the quintessential influencer as “polished and put-together, wearing the latest trends, and many of her posts are adverts sponsored by brands.” Food influencers, sports influencers, beauty influencers, fashion influencers, and more, the lifestyle of an influencer has been the envy of many and the downfall of countless onlookers’ self-esteem for many years. Some hypothesize, however, that the era of the influencer is over.

There’s no shortage of bloggers and influencers who have relied on Instagram as their main source of income who are now reporting feeling burnt out by the way Instagram’s platform and algorithm have changed.

This past winter, BuzzFeedNews sat down with influencer Jess Ann Kirby who felt that she was “in a constant state of trying to please Instagram and left her no time to pursue other revenue streams,” a shared sentiment that has led some influencers to leave the platform entirely.

Kirby shared that the content she was expected to produce, such as TikTok-style Reels, was inorganic to her brand. As Instagram retooled its platform to suit the market’s interests, perhaps it lost track of what made it unique in the first place. 

What has been left in its place feels out-of-touch to some. Critics claim that Instagram is in its “flop era,” where photo dumps are used to replace Facebook albums, yet each person’s feed is much more tailored to e-commerce, sponsored content, recommended posts, and Reels. Instagram has felt the gut punch so hard that its popularity among teenagers has dropped from 33% to 22% in just six years.

Feed Curation Has Been Replaced by Rapid, Viral Videos

Unsurprisingly, there are vocal voices who are against the loss of creatives on Instagram in replacement for short-bite entertainment, like Instagram and creative business coach Sara Tasker who shared with The Guardian that she feels that real human connection and longevity are being sacrificed by the platform’s need to cater to “happy shareholders and panicked, short-term gain.”

“Open the app now and you’re grabbed by flashy images, videos, dancing teenagers and curated performances tailored, algorithmically, to hotwire all of your brain’s most basic likes,” Tasker bemoaned.

Instagram was once the premiere place to curate an aesthetic and define your identity through photos. Now, under Meta’s ownership, it has lost its own identity by needing to wear so many hats: a place to share short bits of your mundane life in Stories, a method of racking up credit card debt by shopping for pretty (and sometimes purposeless) products in Shopping, and a platform to get creative with short-form video content.

Speaking of that short-form video content, by Instagram shifting its platform to keep up with TikTok, the style of content on Instagram is now arguably much more casual instead of curated. The quintessential Instagram feed post (images, carousels, and regular videos) has been feeling the heat of this trend. Once the app launched its Reels feature, feed post engagement dropped 44%.

TikTok user @cozyakili analyzed the platform’s descent from performative (an obviously posed photo) to personable (posed, but make it look candid) after other users were calling out the fact that, though the anti-aesthetic nature of fake casual Instagram posts was meant to be an antidote to the influencer-style “try hard,” it really just comes off as inauthentic. Or dare I say, cheugy.

If TikTok wasn’t raw and authentic enough for you with its “Goblin-mode,” “Fugly Hag Stroll,” and “villain era” trends, the latest social media craze is even more real. BeReal is an app with French origins that is making waves with Gen Z lately. Instagram-style content curation is out of the picture entirely because BeReal only allows you to upload two photos a day at select times, taken right then and there when you get a notification that you’re given the go-ahead to post.

That’s right, no filters, photographers, or even time to ponder what the perfect caption is. With 10.7 million global cumulative downloads and a $600 million evaluation, BeReal could be positioned to take away users from Instagram, Snapchat, and perhaps even TikTok if more users grow fed up with its ethics.

Closing Thoughts

While it would appear that Instagram is trying its hardest to maintain its relevance in a changing market, you have to wonder if it's worth it in the long run. Instagram had its niche among social media apps that gave its users a more artistic, curated approach to digital content. As we know, beauty in its many forms helps nourish our soul, while modern, utilitarian aesthetics make us feel miserable. With Instagram’s content changing from curated to casual, users lose yet another outlet for exposure to beautiful imagery. 

Instagram is unlikely to die out and be replaced by an app like BeReal any time soon – especially as it attempts to adapt to the changing desires of younger generations – but it has clearly lost the special, artistic touch that made it such a trendy platform to be on. So we want to know your thoughts: Is the era of “Insta-worthy” content in the past or will this declining interest in the social media platform inspire the c-suite to bring the app back to its roots?

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© 2022