Research has shown that, in some cases, visual platforms can be good for us. One study, published by researchers at the University of Oregon in 2016, found that the use of image-based platforms like Instagram and Snapchat was associated with lower levels of loneliness among users, and higher levels of happiness and satisfaction, while text-based platforms had no correlation with improved mental health.
A heavily visual platform also makes a relatively poor conduit for breaking news and in-the-moment commentary, which might explain why Instagram often feels less exhausting than other social networks. (It also explains why last month, before I went on vacation, I deleted every social media app from my phone except Instagram — the only app I trusted not to ruin my beachside calm.)
Lesson No. 2: Rethink the share button.
One of Instagram’s most underrated virtues is that it has imposed structural limits on virality — the ability of a given post to spread beyond its intended audience. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, on Instagram there is no native sharing function, meaning that the reach of most Instagram posts is capped at the number of people who follow the user’s account. (There are ways to “regram” someone else’s photo using a third-party app, but they’re clunky, and relatively few people use them. Instagram also recently began showing users posts from people they don’t follow, a Facebook-inspired change that I’d argue is a mistake.)
A native share button has been tremendously useful for Facebook’s and Twitter’s growth. It has also allowed upstart media organizations like BuzzFeed and Upworthy to build enormous audiences by specializing in highly shareable stories. But ease of sharing has also allowed the loudest and most emotional voices to be rewarded with clicks — and attention. It’s this incentive structure that has allowed partisans and profiteers to hijack Facebook’s algorithms and spread divisive messages and false news to millions of people.
The easy virality of Facebook also seems to have made individual users more hesitant about opening up. That makes sense — it’s easier to share a selfie if you know it won’t accidentally find its way into the feeds of a million strangers.
Lesson No. 3: Ban links.
Instagram’s greatest structural advantage, though, may be a result of its decision to go mostly link-free. Links in Instagram captions and comments aren’t clickable, and while some users have found workarounds, the vast majority of Instagram posts aren’t meant to send users to outside websites. (The exceptions are ads, which can contain clickable links and are, not coincidentally, the most troubled part of Instagram’s platform.)
The walled-garden nature of Instagram has frustrated publishers, who want to send followers out to their websites, where the publishers can earn advertising money and “control the reader experience.” (It’s really just about the money.) But Instagram has wisely refused to give in, perhaps realizing that allowing links might turn the platform into a screeching bazaar, with publishers and pages all doing circus acts for clicks.
Removing links from Facebook would wreak havoc on the digital media industry, which has built an economic model around referral traffic from Facebook. It would also risk alienating some users, who enjoy promoting and discussing stories from other parts of the internet. But it would also solve some of the platform’s most vexing challenges. And ultimately, it would be better for the world.
After all, malicious actors don’t post fabricated news, wildly exaggerated headlines or partisan outrage-bait on Facebook only for fun. They do it, in many cases, because it’s profitable. Take away bad actors’ incentives and they’ll go elsewhere.
Banning most links doesn’t seem to have hurt Instagram as a business. It had more than 800 million monthly active users as of September, and it gained a million new advertisers last year. Facebook doesn’t break out Instagram’s revenue, but some analysts expect the app could one day generate as much as $10 billion in annual revenue. That’s still nowhere near Facebook, which earned $10 billion in revenue last quarter alone, but it’s a meaningful number, and it shows that insularity isn’t always a bad thing.
Lesson No. 4: Bad actors are unavoidable, but their influence can be contained.
Instagram is far from a perfect social network, and copying it wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems overnight. Among other issues, some research has shown that use of Instagram can breed insecurity and bullying, and exacerbate body image issues, especially among young women.
Instagram also hosts its own sketchy microeconomy — just witness the scourge of Insta-celebrities endorsing dubious health products, or the uptick in fly-by-night consumer brands that market themselves using Instagram ads.