'Link in Bio' Keeps Instagram Nice

The platform has been pilloried for not allowing links in posts, but maybe that’s what makes the app an oasis in scorched-earth times.

A woman takes a picture of herself lying in bed, overlooking city in the distance
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If you use Instagram, you have seen an exhortation from a friend or colleague to check out some article or event. These calls to action inevitably end, “Link in Bio.”

That’s shorthand, of course, for the single link that Instagram allows users to drop into their profiles. Because other links can’t be added to posts, that single link is an endorsement: It must be the one URL in the world that you are willing to attach to yourself at that moment.

For years, I’ve wondered why Instagram doesn’t allow links elsewhere. It would be so simple. (I reached out to Instagram for comment, but they didn’t respond.) The Ringer’s Alyssa Bereznak dressed down the company in a post titled, appropriately, “Link in Bio’ Is the Worst Thing About Instagram.”

“A network that hosts millions of people won’t let them do something that is second nature for digital natives. So its users have concocted their own clunky loophole to get around the problem,” Bereznak writes. “It’s as if there were a permanent snowstorm in a city, and the mayor refused to clear the sidewalks. Inevitably, pedestrians would just stomp out their own inelegant roundabout paths to navigate the dirty, urine-filled slush.”

Other writers have called Link in Bio “dreaded,” “clumsy,” and “clunky at best.”

And yet, Instagram crushes on, adding users by the hundred millions. The reason is simple: People, like myself, like Instagram. It is a plain like, uncomplicated. In 2015, when my colleague Rob Meyer wrote the definitive post about liking Instagram, “I Like Instagram,” he laid out its excellent lack of features:

It is a silly, idiosyncratic piece of software, but so simple. It says: Here is a picture. Here is a picture of a weird bird my friend saw. Here is a picture of my friend celebrating Eid with her brother. Here is a picture of an acquaintance flying over the city where I used to live.

With every photo, I have two options. I can scroll by, or I can say “I saw this and liked it.” Either way, then I scroll some more. It is a place to look at pictures and, maybe, video. It does not do much else. It doesn’t need to. It is so simple as to be almost serene.

It was true back then! The app’s simplicity seemed to be its heart. But many things have changed about Instagram in the intervening two years. There are now stories, daring you to step into their circles. The formerly chronological feed has been Facebooked. Even back then, Instagram had already added private messaging to its basic function of picture posting.

But the basic feeling people have about Instagram remains the same. They might be annoyed by certain aspects of the app, but they still like it, basically, and in the flat way that Meyer captured perfectly. “Oh, that was nice” is something one could imagine saying after looking at Instagram.

Not so for Facebook or Twitter. On those platforms, I feel like I’ve been snookered into emoting. The reason for this, I would argue, is simple: Instagram has never become a full participant in the web. By refusing to allow hyperlinks, it has maintained a distinct space on the internet. Twitter and Facebook expanded to become a messy, permeable front end for the whole of the web (even as they try to claw ever more video minutes/ads into their players).

And what is on the web right now is, more or less, politics. The Trump era has meant that Americans are talking about politics perpetually, endlessly, circuitously, directly, boringly, excitedly. Given the circumstances and stakes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But as “the conversation” goes, so follows the content, bucketing arguments, relating to your feelings, connecting popular culture with political theater. I don’t know anyone who isn’t exhausted, at least some of the time.

Then there is Instagram, where the documentation that life goes on doesn’t feel out of place. Like a recipe book written in 1944, Instagram declares: Still gotta eat! Like sunset pics from 1968: Still the world turns!

You can trace this right back to Link in Bio. Mobile apps are supposed to let the users do what they want, what they demand. Their paths of desire must be seamless and easy. Friction is the enemy.

But what if friction is necessary for the long-term health of these social systems? What if the platforms sometimes need to do the thing that generates lower short-run “engagement”? What if social networks now need dampening, not amplification?

The outright denial of user desire is also a good reminder of what these spaces actually are. The New York Times’ John Herrman calls the big platforms a “commercial simulation” of freedom. Instagram does not pretend to be part of the public sphere. It is not the natural home of #theresistance. It’s a place for the Sunday’s-best version of your personal life to have space on the internet.

In recent months, Instagram has experimented with letting verified users link out to the web from inside their stories. It solves the Link-in-Bio problem like that. But once the web starts to creep in, will its exhausting dynamics follow?