Instagram Stories: Now a Shopping Platform?
Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social media platform that was started in 2010 by Kevin Systrom. In 2012, it was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. Since then, it has grown considerably, now boasting about 100 million users. In this webpage, we will focus on the Stories feature that was released in 2016 as a copycat of Snapchat’s story feature. The CEO Kevin Systrom, in fact, commented on this, saying that
“They deserve all the credit… This isn’t about who invented something. This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.”Kevin Systrom
Effectively, he said that the Stories feature isn’t a uniquely Snapchat phenomenon, but an Internet-wide format that will be adopted to many sites. So, with this justification, lets dive into how this feature relates to the circuit of culture.
Instagram’s users span many demographics, but some useful distinctions can be made between millennial and non-millennial users and their interactions with the story feature. These two groups respond differently when given advertisements in their stories and use their stories in slightly different ways. However, I will focus on the commonalities that exist among users such as what they want to gain from their stories and how their audiences view them.
Two of the main incentives found from one study for users to post on their stories were impression management and social support. One main difference between Instagram’s story feature and the rest of the site holding normal posts is the lifetime that stories have: 24 hours. This means that anything you post to your story will disappear from your account after 24 hours. This creates a much more present-focused and informal medium for the site because your followers will only see it for a short time, so the polished and refined nature of Instagram does not really translate to this feature. This both allows users to be more nonchalant about what they post and post more private things that reflect themselves more honestly. With this more honest self-representation, individual users can use the feature for more effective changes in impression and to garner support for more important causes the user may be a part of.
One study found that users tend to use their stories for impression management. This is the act of changes your followers’ perspectives of you based on what you put on your story. This comes from the fact that stories are a much more natural place to post more lifestyle-oriented and “day in the life” media due to its informal and temporary nature. When you look at someone’s normal feed, you have basically already assumed that this is a tailored, cropped, and filtered look at a person’s life. They are showing you the highlights that made it past multiple edits and stages of rejection. However, when you see someone’s story, it speaks more to that person’s normal life and thoughts and actions that they do not truly care if other people see. With this more meaningful representation of one’s identity, they can use this to change what people think of them more effectively.
Another way that stories are used are for social support. When posting about issues that users are having in their lives or about larger issues that affect people’s lives, stories are a great way to interact with your followers and show what you care about or what you’re going through. Since people tend to post more intimate events on their stories, much of the time people post about hardships they are living through or issues that are affecting them. Then, with this informal setting users’ followers are more likely to respond and reach out to help rather than simply scroll past.
Some other identities that will be discussed throughout this article are influencers and businesses. We will see how these users use stories differently and how that affects both each other and their followers.
As users can only see other users’ stories for 24 hours, this makes the consumption of those stories incredibly temporal and fast-paced. When viewing a story, the user will either interact with it right then, or never. This creates some interesting ways in which accounts can interact with the followers that see their stories.
One of the most effective way to get immediate feedback from your followers is using the poll feature. This allows you to create a one-question two-answer poll on your story, such as “dogs or cats” in which followers can select one side or the other of the poll and see the percentage of answers that others gave. This is especially useful for businesses and influencers when trying to gauge audience opinions. If an influencer was trying to decide which outfit her followers would like better, or which type of clothing they like, then she can simply post an OOTD (outfit of the day) comparison picture and a quick poll. These polls take a second to respond to, and users very reliably answer them. Businesses can use it to get feedback on possible product ideas, or gauge excitement for new colors being released or new flavors of snacks. This is ana example of how the production and consumption of stories is intertwined. Followers are both consuming the information, but also providing feedback that enhances the story for the account and others.
Another great way to interact with followers is through the question feature. Story makers can put a question with a text box for followers to ask questions that can be responded to. The questions and responses appear in consequent slides in the story so that followers can see all of the questions and responses that have been asked so far. This is another way to get good feedback from followers on certain topics, or to simply give followers a chance to clarify questions or concerns that they have. If an influencer wants to quell the doubts in followers’ minds about a product, then putting up an avenue for followers to ask their questions with good responses so that other followers will also have their questions answered. Likewise, for businesses they can use this to have followers explicitly tell them the features they enjoy about products, what different products they would prefer to see, and general feedback on how they like the company.
One last interesting feature that stories contain is the swipe up feature. This allows creators to link a certain page or website to a story slide by having followers “swipe up” on the picture or video. This opens up the link and can be quite useful in giving followers an immediate resource to learn more about something in a story. For example, a business can post a cool video about a new product they have released, then when users swipe up on the story it can open up the company page to purchase that product, giving ease of access to followers. These split-second decisions and interactions are what make stories a good way to quickly engage with users and change how they consume the story medium.
The stories feature really presents itself as a more current and informal venue for media compared to the normal feed of posts. This feed is usually characteristic of well-manicured pictures of high quality, showing off the highlights of people’s lives. It takes a lot of work to go through the process of making a post: choosing filters, a location, tagging people, etc. This is all in an effort for users to fit in with the general aesthetic of Instagram as a well-polished image platform. There are plenty of comparisons showing what people look like in real life vs. on Instagram, showcasing just how much people change how their photos appear just to look better and fit in with others on the platform. However, stories attempt to alleviate these pressures and allow for more informal and intimate subjects to be discussed on temporary posts.
The informality and temporariness of stories creates a place where users are more likely to post lifestyle-like pictures and about hardships and issues they may be facing. This harkens back to the beginnings of Facebook when non-millennial users would complain about the large number of mundane updates to user’s profiles such as the things they ate for lunch or something funny their friend said. Stories on Instagram is the perfect place to post such things. In this way, the things that people post on their story is already taken as a more realistic look at someone’s life, as mentioned before. Due to the fact that people see stories in a more trusting light, it is a lot easier for people to use their stories for management of their image and reputation. Celebrities, influencers, and businesses can especially take advantage of this by perfecting the image they present to the public while not having to bombard people’s feeds with less meaningful or non-milestone events.
The stories feature is, as mentioned before, a much more informal method of posting to Instagram. This allows users to produce much less curated and off-the-cuff media to be posted. However, the consumption and production of stories are often tied together through the kinds of stickers that can be placed on a story. I have discussed these stickers before, so see the Consumption section for more explanation on how they are used.
With the question sticker, followers can ask questions and have their question and the answer displayed within a separate slide of that story. This is an example of how consumption and production are linked. The follower can both look at the story and provide feedback to it, while producing more of the story in turn. Looking at the poll sticker, this is another example of how followers can both consume and produce stories by seeing how other people have responded to the poll. It also only shows the current results of the poll after you answer, so the consumption of it is not affected by others. This kind of give-and-take is an essential part of stories and part of what gives them a more intimate feel. In a normal post, the only interaction you can have is in the comments section or by giving a like. However, these are both secondary to the actual post and do not show up unless you look for them. With stories, the interactions that accounts have with their followers is displayed in the story, so that followers are more likely to interact themselves and feel like they are engaging more with the media.
Across the Instagram platform, there is a general regulation pattern of users reporting media that they find offensive or inappropriate. A user can either report an entire account, or a single post. This is also the framework for regulating stories, and when you go to report a story you go through the same process. You can either choose to report that the post is spam or inappropriate. When choosing that the post is inappropriate, there is a secondary set of reasons that show up. When choosing spam, the report simply ends there. The reasons that a post can be inappropriate are the following: nudity or sexual activity, hate speech or symbols, violence or dangerous organizations, sale of illegal or regulated goods, bullying or harassment, intellectual property violation, suicide or self-injury, eating disorders, scam or fraud, false information, or “I just don’t like it”. This covers a wide array of possibilities for improper posting, and these reporting options line up with most social media platforms’ regulation of posts. The general goal is to have a safe, legal, and non-threatening environment for your users. After reporting a post, Instagram will investigate the claim and may ban or suspends posts or accounts according to their terms of service.
Another way that you can regulate how and to whom stories appear is through the close friends list. This comes especially in handy with individual and sometimes influencer accounts but does not impact businesses in a substantial manner. The close friends list is a list of users that a specific user deems a “close friend” to which they can easily filter the audience of any post. In this way, they can work off the already more intimate and realistic nature of stories.
When making a close friends-only story post you are immediately adding another layer of intimacy to the post, letting others know that you are a part of a restricted group of people. The story appears bordered by green when followers see it to indicate the special nature of the story. In this way, people can post freely their private concerns and tailor exactly who they want their story to reach. This allows them to garner more social support as followers are more likely to view and respond to these types of stories. This also gives the stories feature in general a more intimate feel because you cannot differentiate when someone makes a normal post to only close friends, but you can tell when a story is only for close friends.
With these two avenues, stories are kept both safe and intimate, which helps in their functions on an individual level, but also on a business level. You can be fairly sure that when you click on a business’s or influencer’s story that there isn’t going to be anything aggressively offensive. However, you also know that what you will be seeing is something that does not belong in the normal feed and is usually a more realistic look into an influencer or someone’s life.
Now, we consider the question: is Instagram becoming more like a shopping platform or a social media platform? In my opinion, I think that it is becoming a shopping platform. Especially with the replacement of a notifications tab with a shopping tab in the app, Instagram is more and more being used mainly as a platform for businesses to showcase their products and what they do. Buying anything is a very visual activity, with people examining how clothes look on a model or how furniture looks in a room. Many would not even think about buying anything without knowing what it looks like or seeing a video of how it is used. With Instagram having such a streamlining of sharing visual media, it makes sense why this perfectly poised platform decided to lean into its shopping side. With the focus on monetization from Facebook, I believe that Instagram will only grow to embrace this shopping nature as time goes on, becoming just another economic endeavor.