Instagram, now with added news, sails through the flak

Evolution of the Facebook-owned platform is far from over

Instagram’s logo: the Facebook-owned app is set to launch a TikTok rival called Reels.

Instagram’s logo: the Facebook-owned app is set to launch a TikTok rival called Reels.

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In philosophical sitcom The Good Place, a demon played by Ted Danson tries to explain human lies. “So great running into you, we should get coffee sometime” is one, he says; another is “all of Instagram”.

Courtesy of the image filters that propelled its early popularity, Instagram has a reputation for suspiciously flawless faces and rigorously edited lifestyles. The backdrops will be brighter, the sunsets meltier and the egg yolks yellower than they are on messier social platforms, and even the most heartfelt of posts revealing crises or seeking catharsis will often seem to take place in distractingly impossible showhouses.

The actual experience of Instagram, of course, will depend upon how you interact with it: if you follow only accounts dedicated to unvarnished pictures of forlorn industrial estates, then Instagram will be a forlorn, industrial site of unvarnished truth.

Indeed, an expanding cohort of news consumers now view Instagram not as an app for dipping into and out of influencer fantasies, but for following real-world events. It was one of the standout findings of this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report: use of Instagram for news has doubled across 12 countries since 2018 to 11 per cent (which is also exactly the reported rate of Instagram news usage in Ireland), leaving the app poised to overtake headline-devouring Twitter as a route to news.

Among 18-24s, aka Gen-Zers, the Insta-effect is more pronounced, with 30 per cent of Irish survey respondents saying they used Instagram for news. This puts it comfortably ahead of Twitter for this age group, behind only Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.

The Reuters report did not define the limits of “news”, and some respondents may have had quite relaxed ideas about what constitutes it. The likelihood, however, is that we’re not just talking about celebrity announcements or stage-managed corporate imagery here (both of which you can find across news media anyway), but news of complexity and consequence. Instagram’s #BlackLivesMatter hashtag alone has been a place for activism, information sharing and expressions of solidarity in connection to one of the biggest stories of the year.

Official news presence

As the Reuters Institute report noted, the rise in Instagram as a means of news consumption also coincides with an upswing in media outlets either experimenting or making their presence felt on the platform. Most mainstream Irish news organisations have active official pages, with some also making use of its ephemeral Instagram Stories feature.

The allure of image-led Instagram for such media outlets is understandable: according to Ipsos MRBI research published in January, it’s really only second to Facebook in the social networking stakes, with 43 per cent of Irish people having an account and 64 per cent of those using it daily.

Still, the app has some notable limitations as far as journalism is concerned, the most obvious of which is that it is not link-friendly. While news posts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn typically invite people to click through to the news site to read a story or watch a video, it is not possible to add a clickable link to the caption of an individual Instagram picture, only to the account bio – hence the frequency of the hashtag #linkinbio.

Although some outlets, for instance RTÉ News, make use of the full 2,200 word caption limit, for most news brands the inability to link back to their own site – combined with the absence of easy share or “regram” functions – may render Instagram closer to a form of marketing than a method of distribution for now.

It is two years since Instagram introduced IGTV, which extended the maximum length of Instagram video uploads from one minute to one hour and heralded a new avenue of communication for YouTubers and anyone with something to promote. But IGTV has only recently become a YouTube-style source of advertising revenue, giving individual content creators a 55 per cent cut of test IGTV video ads – a pilot arrangement that isn’t expected to be widened to media companies until 2021.

Until then, the question is whether news organisations’ increased enthusiasm for Instagram will be good for either news outlets or for Instagram itself.

It is already a magpie of an app: taking inspiration for Stories from Snapchat and emulating aspects of Google’s YouTube for IGTV. Its next mission is to launch Instagram Reels, a short-form, video-editing tool that sounds an awful lot like TikTok.

Facebook distance

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Instagram in 2020 is its ongoing ability to distance itself from the stampeding parent company in the room.

Many of the big brand advertisers “pausing” their ads on Facebook this month under the #StopHateForProfit campaign are also doing so for Instagram. Meanwhile, the platform has attracted criticism in its own right for its role in facilitating cyberbullying and the darkest forms of youthful peer pressure, to which it has responded by adding better safety features and making it harder to work out the number of “likes” a post attracts.

But it is rare for #DeleteFacebook campaigns to be accompanied by #DeleteInstagram ones (or #DeleteWhatsApp ones), even though such a move would probably cause more sleepless nights at Menlo Park.

To date, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times Mark Zuckerberg is publicly wrong or enraging, the reputational flak is absorbed by Facebook, barely touching the user growth engine that is Instagram, the acquisition of which looks unerringly like the best $1 billion Facebook ever spent.

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