Correction to Instagram Is Turning Into Facebook, and That's Bad

By FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

I use Facebook, like most people, but I often say my real self is on Instagram.

On Facebook, I share major life changes and links to articles I've written. But that long, emotional post from the refugee camp in Greece where I volunteered? Or the picture where I'm dressed up as the late Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray for Halloween? Instagram all the way.

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Facebook Inc. has owned Instagram since 2012 but until recently the social network and the photo-sharing app have felt like distinct experiences. For years, Instagram was a haven from Facebook's annoying ads, creepy friend suggestions and viral clickbait. Meanwhile, Facebook has begun to draw fire as a potential menace to mental health and stable democracies alike.

So it's a little surprising that recent Instagram updates make it feel much more like its big brother. Sure, when Instagram has taken a page from Facebook's playbook in the past, it has paid off: Switching from a chronological feed to an algorithm increased engagement.

And Instagram's user base continues to grow. Monthly active users doubled to 800 million from February to September last year; the app had 500 million daily active users as of September.

But lately even Instagram's owner has acknowledged the distinction between a habitual user and a happy user. The latest updates may get people into Instagram more frequently, or for a longer time, but there's little to enjoy about them. Here's why I'm falling out of love with one of my favorite apps.

Recommended Garbage

Part of what made Instagram great was that your main feed was a stream of things you wanted to see: pictures and videos from friends and accounts whose posts you enjoy. The Facebook-type noise -- stuff your friends had commented on, public chatter -- remained in other tabs you could click over to if you felt like it.

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram, minding my own business, when a random picture of a man showed up, posted by an account I'd never heard of. For a split second, I thought I was in someone else's account.

Starting in December, Instagram has been putting posts from people you don't follow right into your feed, under a "Recommended for you" banner.

They are sandwiched between your feed's new posts and previously viewed ones. If you tap the three dots on the right side of the banner, you can hide these posts temporarily, but you can't opt out of them entirely.

An Instagram spokeswoman said the feature "makes it easier to find relevant, high-quality content and accounts you wouldn't normally see but might enjoy."

Research has shown that when we see Facebook content from people we don't know, it can enhance the feeling that others are living better lives. One study found that when people used Facebook passively -- scrolling but not commenting, liking or posting -- their feelings of envy increased.

Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has weighed in: He recently told investors he wants the company "to encourage meaningful social interactions." Instagram's recommended posts are the opposite of meaningful.

Post, Post, Ad

I can now make it through three new posts on Instagram before seeing an ad. After that, I get one every six to eight posts.

Instagram's spokeswoman confirmed ad load is up: "We've been able to do this by improving the quality and the relevance of the ads."

But the ad load feels way up. According to the social advertising firm Brand Networks, clients delivered 17 times as many ad impressions on Instagram in 2017 as in 2016. The company, which works with brands including American Express Co. and Unilever PLC, expects Instagram impressions to grow by 25% in the first quarter of 2018, compared with the previous quarter.

Instagram may be free, but you're paying for it with your constantly interrupted attention.

Nowhere to Hide

Earlier this month, Instagram's direct messages started showing when users were last active.

While a lot of people are fine with such a feature -- closely related to the instant-message read receipt -- others feel it is intrusive. You can disable the feature in settings, but it's on by default.

The Instagram spokeswoman says the feature allows for "more of a real-time experience."

People reeled when Facebook made them download a separate Messenger app, which has since become larded up with too many such real-time features. That may be a harbinger of things to come for Instagram, which is testing a stand-alone camera-first messaging app in six countries outside the U.S.

People You Don't Want to Know

Facebook's "People you may know" feature, which suggests who you might want to friend, is known for being creepy. Facebook says suggestions are drawn from mutual friends, your networks and contacts you've uploaded, among other criteria.

Instagram shares information with Facebook, and it turns out its follow suggestions are just as creepy.

How creepy? I created a fresh Instagram account with my work email and didn't sync it to Facebook. Still, 78 out of 100 recommendations were my Facebook friends.

The other 22 names were even more interesting. They looked like strangers. But you can get linked to people -- even borderline strangers -- who saved your email or phone number and synced their contacts to Facebook, which they've linked to their Instagram. One of my suggested friends was an apartment broker I'd emailed through Craigslist... in 2009. (Gizmodo actually built a People You May Know Inspector so you can study Facebook's seemingly mysterious links.)

Even when you don't upload your contacts directly to Instagram, the network uses information -- or "signals," as Instagram calls them -- from Facebook, which might include contacts or other tangential information.

No Mo' Notifications

Now is not a bad time to go through your notification settings. Did you know that Instagram has 17 categories? Among them are notifications about which Facebook friends use Instagram. If you don't want to be bugged constantly about adding them, you can turn this off. Just remember: This won't stop Instagram from telling your Facebook friends that you're on the app.

You might want to shut off other notifications too, such as the one that says someone is posting for the first time in a while, or my personal favorite, the one that reminds you that you have unseen notifications.

On top of that, Facebook, Instagram and Messenger have been testing a cross-platform notification feature, which lets users see all alerts and hop between the apps.

I understand why Instagram is adopting Facebook features: They work. But for years I logged into Instagram and enjoyed it more than Facebook. I fear a day when I wake up, open my phone and can no longer tell the difference between the two.

Corrections & Amplifications

This article was corrected at 2:27 p.m. ET because it incorrectly stated the Instagram app had 300 million such users as of November in the 5th paragraph. The app had 500 million daily active users as of September.

The Instagram app had 500 million daily active users as of September. "Instagram Is Turning Into Facebook, and That's Bad" at 1:32 p.m. ET, incorrectly stated the app had 300 million such users as of November in the 5th paragraph. (Jan. 31, 2018)

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 31, 2018 14:38 ET (19:38 GMT)