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How Instagram got its mojo back

Katie Notopoulos   

How Instagram got its mojo back
  • Instagram beat out TikTok in growth and downloads in 2023.
  • The social app seemed ready for the glue factory just a year or two ago.

Not so long ago, it seemed like Instagram's relevance was fading.

TikTok was an existential threat and had captured the younger teen and Gen Z audience. Instagram was so closely associated with the millennial aesthetic — avocado toast, emoji captions, the pressure to show off a sanitized and rosy view of one's life — that it seemed destined to go down (in coolness) with the millennial ship along with skinny jeans.

In 2021, The New York Times reported that Meta executives were freaking out about internal data showing that Instagram was losing favor with teens and were pumping money into a marketing campaign to lure them back. A year later, The Atlantic declared that "Instagram Is Over." It seemed like the nail was in the coffin. When The Atlantic says you're not cool, trust me … you're not cool. It has fact-checkers.

But against all odds, Instagram is staging its comeback.

Sensor Tower shows that Instagram downloads were up by 20% in 2023 compared with 2022, in contrast to TikTok's 4% year-over-year growth.

Instagram beat TikTok not only in growth but in sheer volume of app downloads in 2023: Instagram had 767 million while TikTok had 733 million. (TikTok, however, still beat Instagram in user-engagement numbers.)

What's driving Instagram's comeback

EMarketer suggests a few reasons for Instagram's success last year. One reason is Threads, the newly launched Twitter competitor, which requires an Instagram account and may have prompted some people who were curious about Threads to redownload Instagram.

Threads has been a surprising success. It had a record-breaking debut in July, when over 100 million people downloaded it in the first week (thanks to the fact that Instagram prompted users to do so). Many of those curious early people quit, and for a while in late summer the app seemed like tumbleweeds. But by December it was the most downloaded app in the App Store. (It finally launched in Europe that month.) Your mileage may vary in terms of how bullish you are on Threads continuing to be a fun or useful platform, but clearly something's working.

The second thing for Instagram that seems to be working is Reels. When the feature launched in 2020, it wasn't an immediate success. An internal report showed that Instagram was having trouble getting creators to actually post, despite having reportedly offered cash incentives to high-profile creators, and that it had low engagement from users, too. Even worse, lots of the videos were straight-up rips from TikTok, watermark and all.

But whether by hook or carrot, Reels content is suddenly more compelling. In fact, I've been enjoying Reels over TikTok lately, which is something I wouldn't have predicted even six months ago. The key? I'm seeing more original videos and fewer reheated TikTok leftovers.

As Reels has improved, Instagram's traditional feed has changed. The feed now features fewer posts from friends and offers more suggested posts and Reels. Some creators aren't happy with the changes — even Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner complained publicly about the new emphasis on Reels. The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, has said that grid photos have been deemphasized because users are most active in Stories, DMs, and Reels. This seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: Users are more into Stories and Reels because their friends don't post on the news feed, but also people don't post on the news feed because they know no one sees it.

This is a slightly frustrating part of Instagram's recent success: It suggests that Instagram has dominated not because of innovation or creative new features but because of the sheer might of its massive user base. What I find exciting about technology and new apps is that they can give us a fun new way to communicate and play. New innovative apps like BeReal and Clubhouse were fun, even if they ultimately lost steam. Instagram Stories is a copy of Snapchat, and Reels is a copy of TikTok. Instagram hasn't had a truly innovative new feature since the Valencia filter. (Yes, Instagram tested a BeReal clone, and so did TikTok.) But I digress.

TikTok is getting old

At the same time, TikTok, once the main existential crisis for Instagram (well, probably still is), is faltering. Data cited in a recent Wall Street Journal report indicates TikTok's monthly active users between 18 and 24 actually decreased by about 9% from 2022 to 2023. Ouch.

Twentysomethings are spending less time on the app because, well, life gets in the way. TikTok surged during the pandemic when many people were stuck at home and looking for entertainment and connection. In my reporting, the most common thing I've heard from creators about when or why they started posting on TikTok is that they were bored during lockdown. The world is different now, and some of those high-school kids whose screen time went wild in 2020 are spending their days differently.

TikTok is also graying — a recent Pew survey found the surprising news that the app once known for being mainly for teens was popular with people over (gasp) 30.

Ryan Broderick in the Garbage Day newsletter summed up this depressing info:

According to Pew, there are actually less young people on TikTok right now than there were on Instagram in 2014. Almost 40% of TikTok users are in their 30s and 40s. In 2014, that same age group (which we are trying not to refer to as middle-aged) accounted for only about 20% of Instagram users. Even crazier, according to Pew's survey, people aged 35-49 are more likely to actually upload videos than people aged 18-34. And, perhaps most damning of all, TikTok's 30-49 demographic is actually growing faster than the 18-34 cohort.

You'd think the broader age range on TikTok would mean even worse news for Instagram. But somehow, it isn't. Maybe it's that TikTok is getting less cool.

Another gripe I've heard from lots of people, and sympathize with enormously, is that TikTok's emphasis on shopping has made the app less fun. TikTok Shop launched in the fall of 2023, and almost instantly it made the app feel noticeably more full of ads.

For our purposes here, let's set aside the issue of a TikTok ban. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US buyer or effectively ban it. It's unclear what would happen if this bill reaches the Senate. Obviously, eliminating competition would be good for Instagram, but overall, I'm not so sure that Congress' willingness to go full scorched earth on the regulation of social-media apps would be great for Meta.

Meta is engaged in a different kind of struggle with legislation and regulation about its potential to harm young people, especially their mental health. There's new momentum around the idea of restricting social media to just older teens, and even limiting teens' access to phones at all. Schools are getting on board and instituting phone-free policies. Yondr, a company that makes device-locking pouches initially made for comedy clubs and concerts, is selling its products to high schools, and quite successfully — a Boston Globe report suggests at least 50 schools in Massachusetts use Yondr bags.

It's possible that now that Instagram has managed to claw its way back past TikTok, it'll have to face the final boss: competition against real, screen-free life.

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