If you’re an active Instagram user, you will have undoubtedly noticed the frenzy of new features that are added to the app nearly every month. First came pivotal features like Stories in 2016 and IGTV in 2018, but the pace has noticeably quickened. This year alone we have had to grapple with Reels, Shops and Guides, along with Donation, Food Order, and Fundraiser stickers. Stories was already a painfully undisguised feature to compete with Snapchat’s temporary, ephemeral qualities1. IGTV later followed as a not-so-subtle attempt to emulate YouTube’s successful long-form video format. Now that Reels have been introduced, which couldn’t be more obviously competing with TikTok, Guides is yet another feature that most users take for granted. The format that Guides might be replacing, however, is not as self-evident. If you identify as a blogger or journalist in any way, you should probably keep reading.
What Exactly is Instagram Guides?
In May 2020, Instagram introduced its new Guides feature2 as “a way to more easily discover recommendations, tips and other content from your favorite creators, public figures, organizations and publishers on Instagram”. Guides are essentially a framework to organise content, which works similar to a blog article: you select existing Instagram posts (photos or videos) and write a short paragraph to accompany the visual. Guides usually include an introductory paragraph and subheadings, nearly indistinguishable from a classic listicle. Examples of Instagram Guides titles are: “10 Instagrammable Locations in Paris” or “The Biggest Social Media Moments of 2020”3. Notice how similar they are to typical online article titles?
Instagram presented its very first guide under the guise of mental health awareness: “We know many people are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we are first focusing Guides on wellness content”. This isn’t the first time Instagram has announced new features by using the mental health angle to distract from the underlaying, profit-driven motivations. Guides became widely available in November 2020 on both Instagram and Facebook4, accompanied by the news that searching for keywords is now being tested in several countries.5 Keyword search is the type of searching you do on Google and it’s a radically different strategy from Instagram’s original search functions: searching via hashtags or searching for user accounts.
The higher your blog article ranks in Google search, the more likely somebody will click on your article when they do a Google search. Instagram now aims to do the same, with Guides ideally competing for the top ranking spots.
The Power of Search Engine Optimization
It might seem like a small change in strategy, but those who have written content for a living will immediately recognize the significance of this move: Instagram is further implementing SEO (search engine optimization). Bloggers and journalists use SEO techniques to optimize their articles and websites for keywords that rank high in Google searches. The higher your article ranks in Google search (top of the page), the more likely somebody will click on your article when they perform a Google search. Instagram now aims to do the same, with Guides ideally competing for the top ranking spots in Google search.
Plenty of users in my personal Instagram bubble seem to have adopted Guides without giving it much thought. Yet, I suspect this feature could be just as revolutionary for Instagram as Stories were back in 2016. In this case, I’m not necessarily using the word ‘revolutionary’ in a very optimistic way.
In the last few years, I’ve already noticed that an increasing portion of the time I put into content creation has gone towards Instagram, instead of creating content for my own blog. If Instagram now offers an extremely simple way to create articles, using my existing Instagram posts as building blocks, why would I still take the time to offer the same content on my own blog?
If anyone can find the articles they need within the Instagram app, why would they ever have to leave the platform to click on my blog?
What’s in it for Facebook?
So, what’s in it for Facebook? Plenty of content creators have welcomed the new e-commerce integrations that directly link products to their Instagram posts. Would it really be so bad if we were blogging on Instagram or Facebook, instead of independent blogs and self-hosted websites? I know it has been said many times before, but don’t forget: your creativity and attention are essentially the fees that pay for your Facebook and Instagram ‘subscriptions’, even if you’re a business savvy influencer.
If you’re going to publish a sponsored article on your own blog, Facebook won’t be able to profit. You are in control of your content, fee negotiations, and the data that is collected about your readers.
If you’re going to post that sponsored article in the form of an Instagram Guide, that transaction takes place within the ‘Facebook bubble’. By posting that guide, you are supplying more ‘free’ content to Instagram. This content will entertain your followers and keep them coming back to the app. The more time users spend on Instagram, the more time there is for showing ads, which is true for both you and your followers.
In turn, all that extra activity on the app, which would normally take place on your blog, generates even more data for Facebook to sell. That is just on top of another major downside: you and your content will be dependent on a platform you don’t own or control, a platform that is constantly undergoing profit-driven changes. In contrast, a self-hosted website will only change if you want it to. You retain full ownership of your content. I’ve already noticed some of my Instagram posts have been featured in other people’s Guides, and there is no automatic option to remove my post.
All that extra activity on Instagram, which would normally take place on your blog, generates even more data for Facebook to sell. That is just on top of another major downside: you and your content will be dependent on a platform you don’t own or control.
Facebook’s Quest to Become a Super App
Let’s cut to the chase. Facebook Inc. has evolved into a hypercapitalist, power-hungry corporation that primarily aims to monopolize and dominate nearly every possible social exchange online. Ideally, every action we perform via our smartphones needs to go through a Facebook-owned app. If these actions take place within the ‘Facebook bubble’, data can be collected and sold, and targeted advertisements can be squeezed into every nook and cranny of our digital milieu: shopping, dating, calling your grandma, blogging, and the list goes on.
This isn’t just my personal opinion, the lawsuit against Facebook that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced yesterday strongly supports this view. Due to an ongoing, “illegally maintained monopoly” that crushes competitors, the FTC wants Facebook to unwind its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp6.
Facebook’s strategy to monopolize online sociality and get rid of competition is to absorb competitors’ services into their own apps. In essence, the goal for Facebook is to become an integrated super app, though it is still fronting as multiple apps (which is also necessary to retain an existing user base when you acquire an app). A super app is a platform that is developed by one umbrella company that offers a variety of services, often across several apps. That one company, however, has access to all data that is being collected across those app.
Chinese app WeChat is often mentioned as one of the first examples of a super app7, which doesn’t just offer messaging services, but also branched out into payments (e-wallets), food delivery, shopping, and cab services. Since Facebook owns four of the most downloaded apps in the West8 (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram), this scenario isn’t too far off for this US-based company either.
What Will Happen to Blogs?
Will Instagram’s feature frenzy, particularly a feature like Guides, lead to the demise of the traditional blog? I don’t think adopting a fatalistic perspective on the growing dominance of apps like Instagram is helpful in any way (looking at you, The Social Dilemma). I do, however, suspect that an innovation like Guides is indicative of a move towards largely replacing independent blogs by in-app features. Independent blogs won’t disappear. They will, however, shrink in numbers and importance as in-app versions of blogs become searchable, easily linked to an existing follower base and automatically connected to shops. The result: along with our usual social media content, our blog posts will now become increasingly integrated into the monetized Facebook bubble that shamelessly leeches off our our communication and creativity.
- Jorge Vázquez-Herrero, Sabela Direito-Rebollal, and Xosé López-García. “Ephemeral Journalism: News Distribution Through Instagram Stories.” Social Media + Society, (October 2019): 3.
- “Supporting Well-Being with Guides on Instagram,” Instagram Blog, May 18, 2020, https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/supporting-well-being-with-instagram-guides.
- “Expanding Guides on Instagram,” Instagram Blogs, November 17, 2020, https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/expanding-guides-on-instagram.
- Ashley Carman, “Keyword Search Is Coming to Instagram,” The Verge (The Verge, November 17, 2020), https://www.theverge.com/2020/11/17/21570475/instagram-keyword-search-update-hashtag-account.
- “FTC Sues Facebook for Illegal Monopolization,” Federal Trade Commission, December 9, 2020, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2020/12/ftc-sues-facebook-illegal-monopolization.
- Terence Lee, “What the Heck Is a Super App?,” Tech in Asia – Connecting Asia’s startup ecosystem, September 22, 2020, https://www.techinasia.com/heck-super-app.
- Sam Shead, “Facebook Owns the Four Most Downloaded Apps of the Decade,” BBC News (BBC, December 18, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50838013.