Amicus Instagram, sed magis amica veritas?
Last November, Instagram introduced a new functionality to its app, the “close friends” list (Constine). This feature was a years-late response to the rise of finstas, aka “fake instas”, private alternative accounts intended for a smaller audience than the “main”, allowing “a space for private and unfiltered expression” (Dewar et al).
What does this stratification bring about with regards to the use of the app and the redefinition of relationships? How does it serve the interests of the platform owners?
By offering this new “close friends” feature, not only does Instagram try to counter and stop the finsta trend, but it is also yet another push towards the storification of social media.
From main to alt…
In contrast with other social networks, Instagram has been keeping a very limited set of options when it comes to curating follows. You can either choose to have a public or a private account but you cannot vary privacy settings according to individual posts. At the difference of Twitter which possesses lists, the only feature available to curate one’s feed is to mute users you follow.
With a new and easy way to filter one’s audience, Instagram attempts to steer its users away from finstas. This functional answer to the challenge of overlapping social contexts, or context collapse (Marwick and boyd), encourages the publication of more content, and this on accounts that are more likely to be public, thus giving Instagram greater control in terms of moderation as well as centralization of data.
… to stories and back to main
The close friends list only applies to the “stories” feed, an ephemeral feed modeled after Snapchat’s stories. Located at the very top of the feed, it is the focus of all of the app’s latest developments. The latest changes to the main feed algorithm drove many frustrated users away from scrolling. Back in 2016, Instagram switched its timeline from a strict reverse chronological order to algorithmic curation. Content creators report a clear drop in the number of their impressions (Penn), while at the same time the platform encourages them to pay for sponsored posts in order to reach their audience.
Attention is now focused on the stories feed, which you can tap and watch unfold, sprinkled with ads, with no further action required on your part. If you do want to skip the ads, just like any other story, you will have to tap on the right side of your screen. However ads now often come in sets of multiple panels, meaning you have to slide your finger to the left to skip the whole story entirely or tap a few times. If you are a well-tamed user, you might be conditioned to do the latter, giving the ad more exposition. On top of that, the more data gathered about one user’s engagement across platforms, the more they are likely they are to receive more ads (Gesenhues).
Since stories disappear after 24 hours, you would have to check your Instagram app at least once a day if not twice in order to never miss anything. Instagram banks on the fear of missing out anxiety, defined as an apprehension of being disconnected or missing an experience (Dhir et al, 143), thus making its vulnerable users subject to more and more advertisement as they become hooked to the feed.
The close friends list allows you to show more, but the platform still does not leave you much agency in terms of seeing. There is always the option of muting the contacts whose content you are least interested in, but it is rather radical, as it pushes those contacts all the way to the end of the list, beyond the stories that have already been watched, making them very inaccessible.
The mysterious algorithm that orders stories never seems to offer the same arrangement. The feed occupying less than a quarter of an average smartphone forces the user to focus their attention and to horizontally scroll for a long time if they wish to handpick whose stories they would like to watch. It seems like a highly strategic choice to offer such variable orderings as stories from your closest friends are intercalated with stories from less relevant follows, making a passive user spend more time on the app watching content they actually have little interest in.
The other way around, you could already hide users from watching your main story, but the close friends list interface is made more accessible and easy to use. It allows for a very flexible usage, where users can edit the list in just a few taps, according to fluctuating relationships or the degree of vulnerability of the content that they are posting on one given day.
Friendship, from irl to url
The most uncanny consequence introduced by the feature lies in the ambiguity caused by its denomination. The name of the list cannot be customized. It puts the user on the spot, making them evaluate their relationship to each of their contacts present on the platform: “Who are my “close friends” on Instagram? How many should I have?” (Petrarca). Even after social medias caused semantic satiation of the word “friend”, “close friend” stays a loaded term, especially since you can apply the label nonconsensually.
Users on the receiving end might feel moved or thrilled by the add. In fact, the apparition of a new green circle signifying that a story is reserved to close friends might be comparable to the addictive dopamine rush of receiving a like (Haynes). But when the feeling is not reciprocated, confusion and awkwardness ensue. This adds a new layer to the discussion of programmed sociality identified on Facebook by Taina Bucher, while a piece of the same puzzle as the two networks share databases.
The feature is also unapologetically used by influencers who came up with subscription-based systems providing access to the list (Tiffany). In that context, a “close friend” becomes a patron, and very explicitly, a source of revenue.
While Instagram’s main feed is being deserted by content creators and casual users alike, Instagram is concentrating all of its efforts into a highly addictive stories timeline, constantly integrating new features and possibilities, as well as encouraging users to get involved in that programmation (in particular with its face filters platform), fueling the addiction to content and alongside, ad revenues.
Bucher, Taina. “The Friendship Assemblage.” Television & New Media, vol. 14, no. 6, 2012, pp. 479–493., doi:10.1177/1527476412452800.
Constine, Josh. “Instagram Now Lets You Share Stories to a Close Friends List.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 30 Nov. 2018, techcrunch.com/2018/11/30/how-instagram-close-friends-works/.
Dewar, Sofia, et al. “Finsta.” Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’19, 2019, doi:10.1145/3290607.3313033.
Dhir, Amandeep, et al. “Online Social Media Fatigue and Psychological Wellbeing—A Study of Compulsive Use, Fear of Missing out, Fatigue, Anxiety and Depression.” International Journal of Information Management, vol. 40, 2018, pp. 141–152., doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2018.01.012.
Gesenhues, Amy. “Has Instagram Increased Its Ad Load? Marketers Report as Many as 1 in 4 Posts Are Ads.” Marketing Land, 29 July 2019, marketingland.com/has-instagram-increased-its-ad-load-marketers-report-as-many-as-1-in-4-posts-are-ads-264109.
Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” Science in the News, 27 Feb. 2019, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/.
Penn, Christopher. “Instagram Brand Engagement: The Latest Statistics.” Trust Insights Marketing Data & Analytics Consulting, 10 July 2019, www.trustinsights.ai/blog/2019/06/instagram-brand-engagement-the-latest-statistics/.
Petrarca, Emilia. “What Is a Close Friend?” The Cut, The Cut, 16 Aug. 2019, www.thecut.com/2019/08/instagram-close-friends.html.
Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “’Close Friends,’ for a Monthly Fee.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 17 Sept. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/09/close-friends-instagram-subscription-charge-influencers/598171/.