Instagram to Revert TikTok-like functionality.

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Instagram to Revert TikTok-like functionality.
A picture taken on October 18, 2021 in Moscow shows the US social network Instagram's logo on a tablet screen. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

Instagram will walk back some recent changes to the product following a week of mounting criticism, the company said today. A test version of the app that opened to full-screen photos and videos will be phased out over the next one to two weeks, and Instagram will also reduce the number of recommended posts in the app as it works to improve its algorithms.

“I’m glad we took a risk — if we’re not failing every once in a while, we’re not thinking big enough or bold enough,” Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said in an interview. “But we definitely need to take a big step back and regroup. [When] we’ve learned a lot, then we come back with some sort of new idea or iteration. So we’re going to work through that.”

The changes come amid growing user frustration over a series of changes to Instagram designed to help it better compete with TikTok and navigate the broader shift in user behavior away from posting static photos toward watching more video.

On Monday, the TV star and entrepreneur Kylie Jenner — along with her sister Kim Kardashian — posted memes asking the company to “Make Instagram Instagram again.” And on Twitter, nearly every day people post tweets criticizing the new Instagram that quickly go viral.

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Redesigns often incur the wrath of users who are hostile to change, but in this case the high-profile dissatisfaction was backed up by Instagram’s own internal data, Mosseri said. The trend toward users watching more video is real, and pre-dated the rise of TikTok, he said. But it’s clear that people actually do dislike Instagram’s design changes.

“For the new feed designs, people are frustrated and the usage data isn’t great,” he said. “So there I think that we need to take a big step back, regroup, and figure out how we want to move forward.”

The company also plans to show users fewer recommendations. On Wednesday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that recommended posts and accounts in feeds currently account for about 15 per cent of what you see when you browse Facebook and an even higher percentage on Instagram. By the end of 2023, that figure will be around 30 per cent, Zuckerberg said.

But Instagram will temporarily reduce the amount of recommended posts and accounts as it works to improve its personalization tools. (Mosseri wouldn’t say by how much, exactly.)

“When you discover something in your feed that you didn’t follow before, there should be a high bar — it should just be great,” Mosseri said. “You should be delighted to see it. And I don’t think that’s happening enough right now. So I think we need to take a step back, in terms of the percentage of feed that are recommendations, get better at ranking and recommendations, and then — if and when we do — we can start to grow again.” (“I’m confident we will,” he added.)

Mosseri made clear that the retreat Instagram announced today is not permanent. Threats to the company’s dominance continue to mount: TikTok is the most downloaded app in the world, the most popular website, and the most watched video company. Meanwhile, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature has blown a $10 billion hole in Meta’s core advertising business, and on Wednesday Meta reported its first-ever quarterly revenue decline. Zuckerberg has assumed a war footing and promised that many more changes are on the way.

One thing in the company’s favor: in the most recent quarter, the amount of time people spent watching Reels grew 30 percent, Zuckerberg said on an earnings call. That suggests that user demand for short-form video — including, yes, short-form video recommended by algorithms — is real, and deserves a prominent place in Facebook and Instagram.

The challenge is figuring out how to integrate those videos into an increasingly crowded Instagram app, where friends, family, celebrities, creators, and various e-commerce projects are all fighting a daily war for attention. It’s a tall order for Instagram, an app that historically prided itself on simplicity and craftsmanship.

So why can’t Instagram stay focused on photos forever? Is the big shift to video something that Instagram itself caused by putting its thumb on the algorithmic scale? And how much trouble will the changes cause for celebrity creators like the Kardashians?

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