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.