life in pixels

Is Instagram’s Future Snapchat’s Past?

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Once upon a time in a land far, far away — the internet in 2017 — teenagers told me that they preferred Snapchat to Instagram Stories. Snapchat, they said, was more fun. There was room to be a complete idiot and not feel scrutinized — to be trapped by permanency, or judged by metered likes and faves, which Snapchat lacked. And yet, despite their effusive praise for Snapchat, and their skepticism about Instagram, Instagram won. It took less than a year for Instagram to beat Snapchat at its own game and become the ubiquitous stories platform, despite not being the format’s originator.

This week, Instagram announced that it’s testing something that, while not necessarily an outright copy of something Snapchat did first, felt a little familiar. During Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri announced that the platform is testing, in Canada, a version of the service without likes. People will still be able to like and comment on photos you post to your grid; they won’t, however, see the exact count of people who have also liked your picture or video.

The idea here isn’t a terrible one. It’s the kind of social media world envisioned by Kanye West in 2018 in a number of tweets about how social media, as it currently exists, has an “intense negative impact on our self worth.” (Earlier this year, Twitter announced it was testing a similar feature.) West’s Twitter ramblings aside, likes-focused social media culture is bad. Full stop. It makes platforms like Instagram less about sharing your life with friends or fans and more about showing those friends all the ways your life is better than theirs. Social media is more about wining, it often feels, than it is about connecting. There’s a lot of good that could potentially come out of an Instagram culture that isn’t focused to an unhealthy degree on likes.

There’s a lot of good, in other words, that could come out of Instagram becoming more like Snapchat used to be. Early days Snapchat was fun as hell. I downloaded the app as a college junior and remember feeling like it was the first social media platform where I could just post and share things without finding myself participating in a game and racking up a score. The last time I’d felt that had been getting a Facebook account years earlier, though that freedom had more to do with not understanding how Facebook worked than with it actually being a safe place to post. It’s not hard to picture a world where removing visible likes could free up people to post with a little less fear of imperfection on Instagram. (It’s a thing. If you don’t think it’s a thing or you’re thinking, That’s only a thing a teenager would feel stressed about, please know that you are wrong.)

The problem is, well, the same problem that Snapchat ran into. The very qualities that made Snapchat fun and weird also made it hard for business and influencers to thrive there. If you were a rising Snapchat star looking to do sponsored content or branded deals, you had to take it upon yourself to prove to those companies that you were worth the investment — it wasn’t immediately apparent who was popular and highly sought-after, unlike on Instagram. Snapchat showed each user a list of who viewed their content, but this wasn’t outwardly visible, meaning creators had to screenshot those lists and show them to potential partners as proof of potential return on investment. New Instagram, as it’s being tested, could work the same way. Users will be able to see their own metrics but people scrolling through their accounts will not.

Instagram is testing a number of things and if this new format becomes reality, metrics will probably still be accessible for influencers and businesses on the back end, something Snapchat finally introduced in early 2018. That’s still likely to muck things up for influencers, though, and that’s a problem. Making it harder for influencers and content creators and traditional businesses to monetize on the platform was ultimately a death knell for Snapchat. Social networks need influencers as much as, possibly more than, influencers need them. They drive traffic that platforms can sell ads against, and it’s often creators, not the platforms, who show companies the full use and scope of what the product they have built can do. (As an example, Tumblr’s growth — and ultimate demise — was certainly not helped by the fact that it’s all but impossible to make money as a Tumblr star.)

Sure, Snapchat is still around and used all over the world, but it no longer has the initial, essential factor that initially propelled it. It lost that when the fun and the weird and the creative types left because Snapchat made it too difficult to create and maintain business on the platform. And business growth and growth potential tend to drive the growth of a platform overall. (Rest easy, Vine.) In making Instagram like-free, the platform stands to gain some of the weird and fun factors that Snapchat has lost. It just has to make sure it doesn’t lose businesses, too.

Is Instagram’s Future Just Snapchat’s Past?