Instagram Must Choose: Community or Discovery?
Why Instagram’s quest to combine community and discovery won’t work.
My friends make boring TikToks or don’t make TikToks at all. No one wants to see the account SHIRTS THAT GO HARD on Twitter. Does anyone even look at the Discover feature on BeReal?
People either want a social media app to be for community (content from people you actively follow) or discovery (algorithmically relevant content). They don't want both at the same time—but that’s exactly what Instagram is attempting to do.
Last week, after a few months of Instagram clearly prioritizing its Reels and discovery products, Kylie Jenner reposted an image from photographer Tati Bruening demanding to “make Instagram Instagram again”. It called out algorithm changes like less photos, more Reels, and the addition of suggested posts and accounts. It was a clear stand against the app moving to algorithmic-based discovery and a call to re-prioritize the community aspects of the app. The petition made by Bruening garnered over 200,000 signatures and the original post racked up over two million likes.
Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri responded to the backlash in a video claiming that people are posting more videos, and that's why you’re seeing more of them. In other words: It’s not the algorithm forcing you to watch them, it’s just what users want. But how many people/brands/creators are only posting videos because they have been told that's what "works" right now—or seen engagement dip on traditional photo posts? To me, it’s less of a user behavior trend stemming from free will and more of an attempt to please the algorithm.
I’ve seen a lot of people say, “Okay, but what if all these brands and creators stopped posting Reels?”. When you work in social media, you can’t afford to not play to “what works”. When you have KPIs to meet and need to keep engagement numbers up, it’s hard not to participate. One of my clients gets four times as much engagement on Reels than photo posts. Not posting Reels, when they are so clearly being prioritized, is simply not an option.
To me, there’s a clear reason why people are seeing more content from accounts they don’t follow: Instagram is promoting Reels because videos generate more revenue by keeping people on the app longer, as video does across other platforms. Unfortunately your friends make boring Reels (sorry!) or don’t make Reels at all, so Instagram feeds us Reels from brands and creators that actually hold our attention. It’s not the video format that’s the issue, it’s the delivery: showing people something they don’t want to see from someone they don’t know—all while deprioritizing the content they actually care about.
A word that I think is super important in all of this is intent. When I open TikTok, I often have my headphones in, volume up, and am ready to be entertained for a good chunk of time. I rarely go to my following tab and often just let the FYP guide me. If TikTok only showed me content from people I actively follow, I’d likely get bored within 5 minutes. When I open Instagram, I want to see what my friends and people I explicitly follow are up to. If there’s a loud Reel, I immediately turn it down. I hide every suggested post for 30 days. My main thought on the Explore page is “Damn, they really do know I am planning a wedding.” I’m open to discovery on the app, but only through the lens of people I follow and who they might recommend. Similar to how I’m open to discovery on Twitter—you can show me something my friend Retweeted but why am I seeing 20 Tweets from the Weird Dall-E Mini Generations account? The intent when I open a social media app needs to line up with the experience the app provides. Right now, my intent for opening Instagram isn’t lining up with the experience.
Okay, but if Instagram doesn’t focus on discovery, which is very profitable, can they even survive? Of course. Think about this: You’ve seen a TikTok creator show up on your FYP a few times and really like them. What’s the next step to becoming a fan of theirs? Following them on Instagram, right? It’s the social media version of “taking the next step.” And I actually think there’s a lot of value in being the platform where creators can talk to and build relationships with their most devoted fans. I still think follower count and engagement is way more meaningful on Instagram than TikTok for this very reason. Sure, I may discover my favorite creator on TikTok but I build a relationship with them on Instagram. There’s money in that too.
I don’t think Instagram can pull off being a platform for both discovery and community. Frankly, I don’t think any platform can, because the intent of someone looking to discover via algorithm versus wanting to connect with their community is so different. Instagram should understand why people love them in the first place and build out their community offerings even more. Because if I hear a Reel with that sped up ABBA song one more time…I swear I'm gonna go back to MySpace.
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