Tati Bruening, a 22-year-old content creator and photographer, just wants to share memes and post about cooking green beans. Every time she logs onto Instagram, however, her feed is swamped by a combination of perfectly curated photos and professionally created content.
“It’s really bizarre to me that everyone’s gone to this place in their mind that content has to be so curated,” Bruening told us. “So curated that you can’t show what you’re cooking for dinner, because that’s not cool enough.”
Frustrated with the state of the platform, Bruening launched the “Make Instagram Instagram Again” crusade in 2022. Using her handle, Illumitati, the campaign pushed back against the platform’s changes that prioritized algorithmically suggested videos over a chronological feed of accounts you follow. Thousands of users, and even some celebrities like Kylie Jenner, got on board. Soon enough, Instagram scaled back its aggressive recommendations push.
At the core of Bruening’s frustration was a sea change that had swept across Instagram: Instead of everyday photos from regular people, the platform had become a curated platform where even seemingly authentic content was meticulously planned.
The fatigue average people feel when it comes to posting on Instagram has pushed more users toward private posting and closed groups. Features like Close Friends (a private list of people who have access to your content) and the rise of group chats give people a safer place to share memes, gossip with friends, and even meet new people. It’s less pressure — they won’t mind if I didn’t blur out the pimple on my forehead — but this side of Instagram hardly fulfills the original free-flowing promise of social media.
"There's this very weird, unspoken social standard of what's allowed on Instagram," Bruening said. "I know that for my age group, it's like you give up on it entirely, and then you just post only to your Close Friends or alternate accounts. There's this sublayer of Instagram that's much more true to what the app once was, but it is just not viewable to the general public."
Bruening isn't alone. Despite the efforts of big incumbents and buzzy new apps, the old ways of posting are gone, and people don't want to go back. Even Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, admitted that users have moved on to direct messages, closed communities, and group chats. Regularly posting content is now largely confined to content creators and influencers, while non-creators are moving toward sharing bits of their lives behind private accounts.
As more people have been confronted with the consequences of constant sharing, social media has become less social and more media — a constellation of entertainment platforms where users consume content but rarely, if ever, create their own. Influencers, marketers, average users, and even social-media executives agree: Social media, as we once knew it, is dead.
Social media to social media
No app better defines the changing nature of social media than Instagram. The app started as a digital scrapbook — a place to keep up with real-world connections, close friends, and family. While other networks had more users (Facebook) or generated more news (Twitter), Instagram seemed to define the ideal form of this era of social media. Instagram became a verb, an aesthetic, and a generational signifier.
"You sort of end up in this world that is beautiful and you are following your friends and following your family," Jeffrey Gerson, a former Instagram product-marketing manager, told us about the early days of the app. "How often do you get the chance to see the world through your second cousin's eyes?"
But as Instagram grew up, things began to change. Sarah Frier, a Bloomberg tech reporter and editor and the author of "No Filter," which chronicles the history of Instagram, wrote that users learned curation from the introduction of photo filters. After filters and editing tools came hashtags, an explore tab, and the option to privately save people's photos. What was once an enjoyable pastime became a minefield of considerations: What should I say in the caption? Are emojis still cool? Is it better to just stay mysterious and let the images speak for themselves? This running list of questions made the posting process overwhelming, robbing Instagram of its early magic.
As posting became higher stakes, new features also pushed users away from the original mission: Instagram began prioritizing video, then livestreaming, and then shopping. Each change muddled the purpose of Instagram even further. Everyday people were still posting to the platform, but more and more of the content became professionalized. Bloggers brought their audience, editing skills, and expensive cameras to the platform. Influencers started to snag brand deals, and fashion bloggers made the platform into a career. Instagram encouraged the rise of influencers with programs that helped creators understand best practices, gave them technical support, and set up discreet payment programs.
Today, the app has become an aspirational entertainment app — a place where users can shop, find information, and get inspired (or, more commonly, overwhelmed) by snapshots of the best moments of a person's life. Nearly every photo on Instagram now is hand selected from an album of dozens of nearly identical images. The only difference is the one you're seeing isn't too perfect but just perfect enough for sharing. These shifts had a downstream effect on everyday users: The cadence of posting content changed. "Your friends don't post that much to feed," Mosseri admitted during a recent interview on the "20VC" podcast.
Hannah Stowe, a 23-year-old who lives in New York, said that while she uses Instagram every day, she rarely finds herself posting these days. "I used to post on Instagram weekly/bimonthly, but now it's much less frequent, like four or five times a year," she told us in a DM. "I add stories more impulsively but way less than I used to. Now it's probably like once a week. If that."
While sharing has tailed off, consuming content hasn't slowed, especially since the start of the pandemic, Andrea Casanova, an influencer strategist, told us. When people were confined to their homes, the apps saw an influx of photos "from people who either have a specific lifestyle or had specific talents," she said. This, in turn, reinforces typical people's decision to not post on their own feeds, Casanova said, because they assume the bar for what people want to see is higher.
"Culture in general has kept a lot of people from showing up because they don't think their life is aesthetic, or they don't think that they're selling anything, so why would they post on social media? 'I just don't have the lifestyle that all of these creators have, so I don't know what I would be sharing' and therefore fall into this loop of never sharing anything," Casanova said.
As users post less and less to Instagram, new apps have tried to stake their claim as the next big thing. The French social-media app BeReal, which gained popularity for its more authentic experience, peaked at 75 million downloads per analytics firm Sensor Tower and a $630 million valuation.
Growth has stalled a year later, with a monthly active user base of 51 million, a sliver of Instagram's 1.4 billion. Other apps like Dispo, Poparazzi, and Locket have all used various gimmicks to try and recapture social media's halcyon days — each had a moment in the sun at the top of the US Apple app-store charts — but none have truly broken through. Even ByteDance, which has the same parent company as TikTok, failed to recapture the fading magic with the photo-sharing platform Lemon8.
And now there is Threads, Instagram's latest play in the space to fill the void that was left as Twitter has undergone so much volatility. While Mosseri has hailed the text-focused platform as a "less angry place for conversations, " Threads' daily active-user count is down 79% a month after it launched — to 10.3 million daily active users, data from Similarweb found. Even with the backing of Meta, Threads may not have the juice to make it through, because it doesn't offer users a new way to interact. It follows in the footsteps of other buzzy startups that rise to the top for weeks, even days, before users get bored. The core issue is that these apps don't solve anything new. They are mostly copycat versions of each other.
"People are looking for that 'groundbreaking app,' and we still haven't gotten that yet," Casanova said.
It's going down in the DMs
In an era where a lot of frequent social-media users are sick of being "perceived" and having hundreds, or even thousands, of eyes on them, many are retreating to the days of tighter connections and communities.
"I'm honestly just tired of social media," said 23-year-old Walid Mohammed, who works in the creator economy. "I'm tired of consuming content all the time."
And if Instagram was the bellwether for the rise and fall of the "social" social-media era, it is also a harbinger of this new era. "If you look at how teens spend their time on Instagram, they spend more time in DMs than they do in stories, and they spend more time in stories than they do in feed," Mosseri said during the "20VC" interview. Given this changing behavior, Mosseri said the platform has shifted its resources to messaging tools. "Actually, at one point a couple years ago, I think I put the entire stories team on messaging," he said.
These closed spaces aren't just more private than the Instagrams and TikToks of social media, however — they also offer something algorithms can't serve: niche communities.
"You have this really interesting countermovement backwards into these much smaller and much more hyper-specific communities," said Gerson, who recently has helped grow Castro Labs, a queer social-media startup.
That opens the door for new apps that can capitalize on the more direct sharing preferences of the younger generation. Discord, for instance, has grown to nearly 170 million monthly average users — it could even be on a path to an IPO. Other, smaller apps such as Geneva have also provided new ways to connect with people locally or with similar interests. For instance, the content creator Nina Haines launched a group called SapphLit, a self-described "sapphic book club born out of the queer BookTok community."
Victoria Johnston, a 22-year-old software engineer, imagines the ideal social-media platform as a "safe space where people can just connect and you don't feel pressured to have a big following or a presence or be really well known." Johnston, like many others, wants to go beyond a screen. She wants a social network that helps her find community in her everyday life.
"On a space like Geneva or any kind of group networking or chatting app, you're just trying to connect with people with like-minded backgrounds and you're not trying to prove anything to anyone," Johnston said. "You're really just finding those niche communities that you probably wouldn't be able to find on a major social-media app."
And as more users and creator communities migrate toward closed spaces, the behemoths like Instagram are also trying to capitalize on this reality by introducing features like paid-subscription services that offer exclusive group chats.
Lia Haberman, an instructor at UCLA Extension and an advisor for the American Influencer Council, said that Gen Alpha, the age cohort of 13 and younger, are "not embracing traditional social-media platforms and customs." This presents a problem for influencers and brands, since smaller, more direct spaces are harder to penetrate.
"How does a brand show up in somebody's DMs or Discord server if they're not invited?" Haberman said. But in many ways, that's the point. People can still go on Instagram to check on their favorite celebrities and influencers, but young people don't want brands and marketers infiltrating the closed communities where they spend most of their time.
Social media promised to create an intricate web that brought us all closer to one another, but the wave of exposure led to an openness that many people just aren't interested in. Most people wouldn't let the first person they stop on the street sift through their camera roll. They want their achievements, failures, and little life moments to be kept sacred. So after a decade of airing our most intimate moments in public, the pendulum is shifting back. People are more selective with their communities and are reverting back to an old-school way of interacting. It's hard to know how the change will affect the online atmosphere over the long term — some evidence suggests the shift will create a healthier digital experience, but it also risks further dividing people into like-minded echo chambers.
Whatever the result, it's clear that the Instagram era of social media is over and the new era of "authentic" online sharing is emerging — just without an audience.