Reels first: what the backlash against Instagram means for creator rights

Reels: love them or hate them, we’re gonna be stuck with them. A worldwide backlash has followed Instagram’s latest update, which pursued a video-first, TikTok-like strategy by prioritising reels more than its historic, culture-defining pictures. And people are pissed – including Kim K and Kylie Jenner. In what has clearly become the hot girl summer of discontent, creators are protesting against Meta in New York and a viral petition is making the rounds telling the Insta overlords to “make Instagram Instagram again”. But as the backlash continues, crucial discussions about platform governance and power are not always being had. So I’m going to be the platform governance researcher killjoy and have them here.

Instagram’s pivot to reels

Let’s get things straight: Instagram’s announcement that they’re a video-first platform, with a focus on reels, isn’t new. IG announced it for the first time in 2021, saying that they were no longer just a photo-sharing platform – bringing many to say they justed want to become TikTok. Yet, the past few months’ decrease in pictures’ engagement, and the crowding of our feeds with endless reels that make Instagram look like a hyper, odd marketplace have been frustrating users. Various experts have reported a great decrease in the engagement of feed posts due to Meta’s push to reels – with carousel, long videos and pictures bearing the brunt of the fall in views.

Having to fit within the rigid format of a reel-first feed stifles creativity – e.g. it doesn’t fit a full pole performance – and dilutes complex concepts, trivialising them in order to be entertaining and to fit a 60/90 second video. In a recent Il Post article citing Polen Erciyas, journalist Viola Stefanello talked about the ‘TikTokization of Instagram,’ arguing that the platform is trying to mimic its Chinese rival so much it’s losing its soul.

Users’ backlash to IG’s reels first strategy

Instagram are masters at dodging criticism by playing the ‘we have so many users to keep happy’ card, but it didn’t work out for them this time. In the last week of July, users and creators got angry at its most recent, TikTok like full screen update. Too many lost views, while others lamented they couldn’t even see their friends’ posts. A very successful petition started by @illumitati, launched with a meme asking to “make Instagram Instagram again” made the rounds on social media, resulting in hundreds of thousands of signatures and over 2M likes – including two by Instagram’s possibly dearest darlings, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner.

The petition argues that: “It feels wrong to switch the algorithm on creators that have made a living and contributed to the community forcing them to change their entire content direction and lifestyle to serve a new algorithm,” acknowledging the havoc Instagram’s whims can wreak on the creativity and hard work of so many users.

So in short: it’s not a great time to be IG CEO Adam Mosseri who, most likely in response to the backlash by so many of his high-profile users, ended up shooting what Chris Stokel-Walker called a ‘hostage video’… only to receive more frustrated comments, including one by yours truly.

Since the backlash, Mosseri has revealed that a lot of the decisions made were “beta testing” and that they may be removed. Acknowledging that the user experience on IG hasn’t been great, Mosseri is promising IG will “re-group” and attempt to get things right. In full-on Silicon Valley spiel, he said: “I’m glad we took a risk — if we’re not failing every once in a while, we’re not thinking big enough or bold enough.”

Reels first: potential causes and effects

What Instagram’s recent pivot to reels means for the governance of all our content is that, by de-prioritising pictures in favour of reels, we will all have to do more work (e.g. filming, editing, looking like jumpy hamsters on cocaine) to work with brands, promote our work and to be visible on the platform. Those who don’t – e.g. artists, brands, models, photographers – will see a massive decrease in their reach and visibility, leading to less work opportunities and less chances to promote their work.

It can be argued that by prioritising reels and de-prioritising other forms of content creation, Instagram is making a portion of the workforce who relies on it obsolete. This is the reality of the market: new technology results in the disappearance of certain roles and habits. But without presenting sound data and a legitimate strategy for the pivot to reels which includes everyone, Instagram just look like they’re obsessed with being TikTok.

Instead, Instagram argue users produce more video and that they have to act accordingly – mistaking correlation for causation. After they’ve pushed users to create reels through their “video first” announcements, and after the considerable digital labour that producing TikTok entails, users may just be trying to minimise their work by recycling content that responds to a demand. It doesn’t mean that reels are all they want.

What’s missing in the anti reel discourse?

In all of this, what’s more interesting to me is: what about users’ rights? What about platforms’ increasing monopoly over our expression and work? We must not lose momentum in holding platforms to account – and not just because we want to see more of our friends’ posts. As Armando Cabba pointed out: “It’s hard to limit it to just wanting to see more pics of our friends when it comes to the examining the structures and practices of a social media platform.”

While celebrities complaining about IG’s feed have (rightly) gathered attention, we must not forget the root of the problem: that the opaque, unequal and unfair governance of Meta and Instagram’s content and profiles strings together issues of political influence, economic monopolies and human rights. Laws like FOSTA/SESTA pushed platforms to de-platform sex work and sex first, and now that unfair governance is trickling down to the general public. In doing so, FOSTA/SESTA exposed the strength of platform power, as major Big Tech companies scrambled to de-platform sex in order to protect their economic interests.

FOSTA/SESTA should be a warning for us all, but sadly, given it targeted manly marginalised users or taboo subjects, its effects still seem to matter to limited user groups. Celebrities profiting off of sex workers’ aesthetic and labour were quick to condemn Instagram’s feed changes and pivot to reels, but many haven’t been standing up for de-platformed users that looked like them, but weren’t famous of verified.

Still, Instagram’s governance of content, and particularly its pivot to reels, now matter to a lot more people. It’s important that, in fighting against the platform’s whims, we discuss its use of power particularly against the more marginalised.

In a 2020 academic paper, I described social media platforms as ‘corpo-civic spaces’: spaces owned by a corporate company but used for civic, public or professional participation – like shopping malls. Offline, corpo-civic spaces still have to respect people’s human rights. Online, not so much (yet).

From my paper in First Monday

As a result, we must keep the momentum surrounding the anti reel backlash for better platform governance. Which is why I was fascinated to see that, at the same time as @illumitati’s succesful petition, meme creators in New York staged an ‘anti-Zuck’ protest about IG’s pivot to reels and its generally opaque governance. Created by @neoliberalhell and @hornymermaid, the @antizuckprotest account is fully embracing the 2022 hot girl summer of discontent, following the footsteps of rail workers, transport workers and everyone else who is staging a strike, to demand rights and transparency.

TL;DR: this is about work. Which brings me to the following question.

Are creators workers?

But are creators recognised as workers?

Creators are yet another offspring of the gig economy, or that type of labour market where people provide a service on demand and are paid for each individual ‘gig’ completed, instead of receiving a regular wage. Things can become very tricky for individual companies when ‘gig’ workers become actual workers – and Uber is a case in point.

Having been acknowledged as workers, Uber drivers in the UK are now entitled to hourly pay, the minimum wage, holiday pay and pension auto-enrolment. The Economics Observatory writes that as workers rather than ‘full employees’, drivers do not have full employment rights and therefore cannot claim unfair dismissal or redundancy. But as workers, from when they log on to the Uber app until they log off, they will be paid an hourly wage for their time instead of for each lift they successfully complete. Since the ruling, Uber has announced that its drivers will earn at least the National Living Wage, which increased by 2.2% to £8.91 on 1 April 2021.

So what about ‘gig’ workers like creators?

According to UK law, “A person is generally classed as a ‘worker’ if: they have a contract or other arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward (a contract can be written or unwritten); their reward is for money or a benefit in kind, for example the promise of a contract or future work.” If most of the below points apply, chances are you are a worker:

  • you occasionally do work for a specific business*
  • the business does not have to offer you work and they do not have to accept it – you only work when you want to*
  • your contract with the business uses terms like ‘casual’, ‘freelance’, ‘zero hours’, ‘as required’ or something similar*
  • you had to agree with the business’s terms and conditions to get work – either verbally or in writing*
  • you are under the supervision or control of a manager or director
  • you cannot send someone else to do their work
  • the business deducts tax and National Insurance contributions from your wages
  • the business provides materials, tools or equipment you need to do the work*

The conditions in italics are of interest to creators: most of us sign ad hoc contracts with brands, working occasionally, agreeing with brands’ T&Cs and, sometimes, using materials and tools provided by brands to do the work. The issue is – are we working for Instagram or through Instagram?

With many of us signing deals with brands, Instagram is only an intermediary – so even though they may be providing materials, tools or equipment we may need to do the work they are not the ones we sign the contract with, apart from their terms of use, which we sign to be able to use the platform. But the terms of use are just that: a user agreement, not a work agreement. This makes the situation ambiguous, because while Instagram’s platform and its governance is crucial to our ability to work, it’s not with Instagram that we have to fulfil our contractual obligations.

Even more confusingly, a lot of content creation happens on a self-promotion basis, leading to work and necessary to get work, but not a content creation specific exchange of services. So it’s all very tricky – we just know that we rely on social media platforms for all sorts of work, networking, self-promotion and, of course, to keep in touch with our loved ones.

In this sense, then, what Rankin and I argued at Cannes Lions 2022 becomes even more important: if brands and the creative industries keep working through and with platforms without questioning platform governance, we’re all the worse for it.

In a recent interview, Mosseri acknowledged creators have needs that must be met:

“[C]reators need some stability, they need distribution, they need some predictability in their income, they need to be able to feel like they’re staying safe. They need to be able to feel like they can express themselves comfortably. And so I’m trying to meet all of those needs, for all creators. I want to be clear I care about big creators — but I really want to do much better by small creators than we have historically.”

Adam Mosseri, Instagram CEO via a Casey Newton interview

Still, given the way the platform he oversees is run, we all know that creators needs are not being met. We currently don’t have rights on the platform. Strikingly, in its human rights report which seems to underpin crucial rights — principles of equality, safety, dignity, privacy and voice — Meta makes no mention of the rights of those who work through their platforms. Even worse, there is no mention to any sort of change in the way Meta approaches the rights – and in particular the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person, Rights to Equality and Non-Discrimination, Rights to Public Participation, to Vote, Be Elected – of creators and in particular of sex workers, who have been some of the main targets of Meta’s moderation.

So without brands’ influence on social media companies, I believe governments should write creators’ rights – and therefore workers’ rights – into both advertising and employment law, pushing platforms to treat them fairly also through any digital legislation. For example, while the draft of the (awful) UK Online Safety Bill protects freedom of expression, it does nothing towards protecting the lives and livelihoods of de-platformed, censored or simply algorithmically de-prioritised creators.

The reels backlash and the @antizuckprotest

Because this is about work, I wanted to interview the most political voices in the Instagram backlash: the founders of the @antizuckprotest.

Ironically organised through Instagram itself, Ana from meme page @neoliberalhell and sex worker creator Anjelica (@hornymermaid) gathered a series of fed up IG users through a group chat on the platform. “We met on zoom twice a week over the last month and a half, created demands, started posting information to spread the word and expose how unfair the moderation really is.”

Their crucial political and governance demands should inform any discussion about Instagram going forward:

  • “We demand transparency regarding community guidelines including a comprehensive list of what can and cannot be said and posted on meta platforms, we demand a real list of community guidelines that is not purposefully vague
  • We demand you provide real user support from real people, not algorithms, as long as your algorithms cannot pick up on the context of the words and images being used.
  • We demand a thorough review process when reviewing content that has been reported and removed, which does not automatically deplatform users
  • We demand you stop shadowbanning accounts and only use permanent account deletion as a last resort in extreme cases
  • We demand all users have the same moderation system. It is unjust to provide elite people with a different set of rules.
  • We demand you stop censoring and silencing marginalized voices to fit your political agenda
  • We demand you stop censoring vital information because the content is political in nature
  • We demand that artists, creators, and activists who monetize via this app are protected and have real support systems with real moderators to help users.”

They told me: “Instagram is something people need to survive, this private company has become the public sphere, and META should not control our voices. We need to make the platform work for the people who keep it alive.”

The physical @antizuckprotest saw around 30 creators, artists, activists, sex workers, and people from the press listen to a set of speeches by Ana, Anjelica, but also by Allison, who runs @imunchie and who spoke about the tech and business side of META and how moderation changes would benefit them, and Keenan, who runs a meme page called @arabs_with_identity_issues who spoke about shadowbanning and deplatforming of minorities, especially Palestinians. 

Importantly, the @antizuckprotest aim to include a variety of experiences:

I want to diversify this movement as much as possible. [Platform governance] affects all kinds of visual artists, photographers, tattoo artists, online creators, sex workers, activists, memers, etc. We’ve seen how certain body types are discriminated against online. We see how women face all sorts of harassment. We see how trans and queer people are treated. We see how people of color are censored. We need the moderation system to function so that all users have a better experience and that means creating a coalition of all different kinds of people.

@antizuckprotest co-organiser, @neoliberalhell

@antizuckprotest’s next steps are meeting with Meta workers who reached out to them before the demo. “We have lots of ideas for possible solutions. We would like to see if these can be achieved to better user experience and make Instagram a safer and more equal place for all users and creators,” they say. Before the protest, they were talking to Instagram ‘Head of Memes’ Ricky Sans, who reinstated a few of their de-platformed accounts, about the possibility of meeting to hear their concerns about the platform. “We want to make changes that will help all sorts of users and creators. We know they’re well aware of what we are doing and if they don’t listen we will continue to organize, protest, and rally until they do,” they say.

Case study: @neoliberalhell

Ana, 24, created meme page @neoliberalhell for fun in 2021 to post and repost content. She describes her content as: “Lots of political satire, cultural commentary, and outright absurd shit.” Her page grew quickly, racking up community guidelines violation as she went on.

For Ana, who is a visual artist as much as a memer, the art world runs on money and exclusivity, but Instagram has changed it for the better: “It allows artists an incredible amount of exposure and a far more equal playing field. It allows them to make connections and thrive independently.” This is particularly true for those who weren’t born rich: “For creators and artists who don’t come from privilege and don’t have any connections to the art world industry, Instagram is a place where artists can actually get a shot at independent survival,” she adds.

“I have been de-platformed so many times that I lost track. They recently took down my largest account, @neoliberalhell2, for posting a flyer for this protest, claiming it was inciting violence.” She adds:

“I had my entire account wiped when I referenced the song ‘Work Bitch’ by Britney Spears. Someone had left a comment on my post asking ‘Is this what the song Work it by Britney Spears was about?’ and I commented back ‘You mean work bitch?’ and the comment didn’t even send. It was immediately flagged and my whole account went down for referencing the Britney song. It’s things like this that are so senseless.

While my Britney reference had my whole account wiped, I’ve received countless comments, messages, and posts targeting me, harassing me, men saying awful things, going as far as to call me a whore who should be raped. I have reposted messages on my story saying I should die and be raped, then had these stories removed for violating community guidelines. While I and many others face incredible amounts of harassment, the same guys calling us these things are also mass reporting and getting us de-platformed on top of it.”

@neoliberalhell

Ana cites giving users more say in their experience, creating a council of creators, fixing algorithmic flaws, having bigger teams of human moderators and paying moderators better as important changes that need to be made. She adds:

“[I]t’s terrifying that my success is completely in the hands of an awful and unfair moderation system. That’s why it’s not just about memes for me. It’s about protecting artists like myself who gain so much potential for independence and success and financial stability through the platform. When we see that users who use the app to monetize, making income to support themselves, it becomes a workers rights issue. There needs to be more security for users who monetize via the app.”

@neoliberalhell

My experience with dealing with Meta

What these creators are asking, and what we should all be asking, is for a charter of rights. Platforms (including Meta) have endorsed the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability, but I think these need an update for the creator economy. Social media companies have so far endorsed fairer governance ideas, making commitments, but did not act accordingly.

Internationally, charters of rights – e.g. international human rights standards – provide guidelines to governments, companies and individuals to run spaces and places. Since Meta act as a government, police, judges and jury of large amount of users worldwide (overseeing more accounts than many countries put together), they should be pushed to create a charter of rights to follow. Otherwise, they will continue de-platforming people according to opaque governance systems and their own economic interests – as they’ve already been doing with sex and sex work for too long.

Yet, from my experience of having received an official apology from Instagram about shadowbanning in 2019, having been in touch with Meta policy since the anti Terms of Use campaign from 2020 and having previously written academic papers about platform governance and shadowbanning, I am not too optimistic about Instagram’s next steps. I predict a few things will happen on the back of the anti reel backlash.

  • Instagram will begin conversations with activists, providing snippets of information and promises that they won’t always keep. My communications with IG has been going on since 2019 with press, and since 2020 with policy. It’s always been on their terms and not on mine: they decide when and how they want to reply, and are masters at saying a lot without saying anything. They will offer to look into mistaken deletions, but they will not be changing their governance until they pushed to do so;
  • Instagram will react (in a public-facing manner): as it happened post-pole dance shadowbanning in 2019, during the #EveryBODYVisible campaign I co-organised, after countless moderation mistakes such as Nyome Nicholas-Williams’ de-platforming, after the 122,000 signatures strong petition I and a set of activists, sex workers, creators started in 2020, and now after this backlash, IG will respond by putting in new cosmetic policies to quieten discontent. However, these policies will not change the face of its governance, or the distribution of power, until they are legally or economically forced to make changes (e.g. by a law or by advertisers’ and brands’ withdrawing of support);
  • Relationship with activists will become increasingly sporadic, until the ‘hot topic’ isn’t hot anymore. A variety of activists I have spoken with have talked about initially informing Instagram of their governance’s effects only to be ghosted after a while, with no changes in sight. For instance, while they expressed interest in a community meeting I proposed, they haven’t delivered on that since 2021; while they promised me they’d start notifying users about shadowbanning, they haven’t yet done so. Throughout 2021, they increasingly diminished contact with me, citing IG blog announcements in answer to my questions and even telling me they were no longer going to look into account deletions unless users had exhausted official appeals.

In short, Instagram will continue getting by until the next crisis. Why? Because Meta’s relationship with users and their stakeholder management are entirely performative and PR focused. As a private company, IG deal with governance issues and complaints through a PR lens, instead of through meaningful, impactful change – that is, until they will be regulated in a way that goes beyond the introduction of ad hoc laws like FOSTA/SESTA, or until a human rights focused overhaul of platforms’ systemic issues happens.

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