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Gen Z is fleeing Instagram. The platform has a dumb new plan to win them back.

Emily Stewart   

Gen Z is fleeing Instagram. The platform has a dumb new plan to win them back.

Instagram would super-duper like everyone to post more, especially creators. In a landscape where people are posting less and less on social media overall, making the platform seem active and vibrant is crucial to keeping people's attention. So Instagram is pulling out all the stops, or at least some stops, to get users to share, some of which may be more worthwhile than others.

I've recently noticed that the company has been giving people with creator and business accounts virtual rewards for certain "achievements" or milestones on the platform. If a user adds to their stories at least seven days in a row or gets a certain number of plays of their reels, they receive a badge that amounts to a digital "woo-hoo." While the feature has been around since late last year, Instagram promoted it in a blog post early this month. It also included some tips on making the most of the feature and succeeding on the platform, including tracking "achievement" progress, posting regularly, and encouraging followers to interact — the thing that makes the whole social-media machine work.

Plenty of apps are gamified to try to get people to engage and stick around, even if the rewards they get for playing along are meaningless. Fitness apps congratulate you for working out X number of days in a row or getting your steps in. Wordle lets you track your streaks, as does the language-learning app Duolingo. Gamification can be fun — it feels kind of neat to get a little congrats for getting your steps in. But it can also be icky. It can distort behavior, putting focus on getting whatever achievement instead of accomplishing the task at hand. It may even make people who don't hit certain goals feel like they're lesser, especially if their shortcomings are visible to others. (Instagram's new badges are private unless creators choose to share them.)

The badges aren't a stick, but they're not exactly a carrot, either — well, maybe one of those soggy baby carrots at the bottom of the bag in the back of your fridge.

From a business perspective, Instagram's move makes some sense. Instagram is a key part of Meta's overall business and a major revenue generator. Court filings that came out earlier this year revealed that Instagram generated $32.4 billion in ad revenue in 2021, 27% of Meta's total revenue and more ad revenue than YouTube brought in. In a business landscape where Meta has been dumping tons of money into the metaverse and artificial intelligence, Instagram's continued success is vital.

"You could talk to a lot of people and they would suggest that essentially most or all the company's growth more recently has come from Instagram. And so they're obviously trying to think of ways not only to keep people engaged, but I think they're very cognizant of pretty constant competitive threats," Scott Kessler, the global sector lead of technology, media, and telecommunications at Third Bridge Group, said. That includes direct rivals such as TikTok and Snapchat, as well as all the other things on and off the internet that are contending for people's attention at all times.

In particular, Instagram needs to keep Gen Z and people even younger coming back to the platform, even if it's not always great for their mental health and well-being. Doing that requires a constant flow of new content so the platform doesn't become just a sea of ads and irrelevant, boring stuff. Instagram's parent company, Meta, doesn't want it to go the way of Facebook, which for many people, serves as a tool for birthday reminders and seeing what their one weird aunt is up to, if they ever sign in at all.

While it is understandable why Instagram would do this, whether it will work is another question. People are already posting for likes, attention, and clout. Adding a little badge to show one's personal achievements makes the endeavor feel more official, but it's not clear how much it will make a difference.

I don't see badges being the solution to increase posting cadence.

Ali Grant, a partner and the chief marketing officer at the Digital Dept., an influencer-management company, told me she understood the idea of trying the gamification concept — she sees it all the time in corporate. She has her doubts about how effective this will be, though.

"What creators want on the platform is reach and engagement," she told me. "When that's lacking, the motivation to post dwindles, and they seek it elsewhere. I don't see badges being the solution to increase posting cadence."

The number of posts being added by content creators, or really anyone for that matter, seems to be at an all-time low, Grant said. The creators who post consistently are the ones who see more growth and engagement, but regularity still doesn't guarantee success, and there's no clear rhyme or reason to what ends up getting the most attention.

"There's this pressure to create aesthetically elevated content for Instagram, and that deters people from posting as much as they might on stories or on TikTok, which is less curated and more of the moment," Grant said. "It's a mix of bandwidth issues and pressure for the type of content required for in-feed Instagram posts."

Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business who studies how new technologies influence consumer behavior, was also dubious of this whole Instagram badge situation. People like setting and achieving goals, including keeping a streak, which becomes a goal in and of itself. But an Instagram posting streak is different from, say, exercising every week for a year or doing a language lesson daily, both of which have intrinsic value. There's enjoyment and satisfaction in the action itself beyond the extrinsic reward. You feel good about trying to get in shape or practicing Spanish no matter who sees; that's not the case for Instagram posting.

"Language learning is a goal people have in and of itself, and so having a badge and being rewarded for doing that, I'm intrinsically happy about that badge," Barasch said. "But to post on Instagram, I'm not like, 'Wow, I'm a great poster.'"

The trade-offs are that I'm putting myself out there. I might not get a lot of likes. People might judge me. There are so many social dynamics

Barasch said people seeing their own little badges may help in the short term, but it's hard to imagine a long-lasting impact unless it comes with some other perk or reward.

"The trade-offs are that I'm putting myself out there. I might not get a lot of likes. People might judge me. There are so many social dynamics," Barasch said.

A spokesperson for Meta acknowledged that the tools wouldn't be useful for every creator but said they'd seen them help creators who are just getting started and that, overall, Instagram wanted to do more to give creators guidance to achieve their goals. On the gamification front, the spokesperson said the "last thing" the company wanted to do was add more pressure on creators and emphasized that the features were optional, private, and relatively low stakes.

"This is very much a feature that's meant to help creators set goals within the app since we see creators already doing this on their own when they set their own personal challenges," the spokesperson said. "We want to help guide creators with the right goals and milestones that we believe will help them succeed on the platform."

Ultimately, the Instagram badges aren't the end of the world. At best, they're a nothingburger. At worst, they seem a bit lame and add to the vibe that Instagram is becoming a platform for olds. Grant sent me a screenshot of her achievements, none of which she has earned yet, and noted she'd never looked at them before I asked her about them. I texted my most Instagram-aware friend — who has a business account — to ask about her badges, and she sent me a screenshot of something different because she didn't know what I was talking about.

The Instagram badges aren't widely available for all users yet, and a spokesperson for Meta said they had nothing to share on whether they eventually would be. In the meantime, the badge thing seems pretty neutral to negative. Of all the achievements to care about, posting a story seven days in a row isn't a particularly aspirational milestone, and it's hard to gamify a social-media landscape that is already, by and large, a game.

Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.

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