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Instagram’s design gave rise to the influencer economy. It may also be its downfall

When everyone is an influencer, no one is an influencer—and Instagram’s user interface is partly to blame.

Instagram’s design gave rise to the influencer economy. It may also be its downfall
[Photos: Rohan Pandavadra/Unsplash, Johan Mouchet/Unsplash, Gian Cescon/Unsplash, Hassan Ouajbir/Unsplash]

When everyone is an influencer, no one is an influencer. And Instagram’s design isn’t helping matters.

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Influencers are publishing more than ever. They published 15 times more editorial posts and eight times more sponsored ads on Instagram in 2018 than they did in 2016. Yet consumers are starting to pay less attention to what they post, according to a new study by social media metrics firm InfluencerDB.

The problem is in part due to the influencer ecosystem itself: There are more than 500,000 active influencer accounts publishing posts around the clock. But it’s also a problem born of Instagram’s design. Its simple scrolling feed limits how much we can see at any given moment. So the more influencers post, the more our feeds are made up of white noise, and the easier it is for us to disengage.

To be clear: Influencer sponsored content is still the best-performing stuff on Instagram. But engagement rates (or the ratio of likes to follower counts) for influencers are down across the board. Travel influencers—a notable subset of the influencer market that saw people engage 8% of the time in 2018—saw engagement drop to 4.5% this year. And engagement rates for all sponsored posts fell from 4% in 2016 to just 2.4% so far in 2019. Influencer engagement is down, and so too is sponsored post engagement.

[Image: courtesy InfluencerDB]

Have we finally reached peak influencer, where all the beauty, fashion, and wellness gurus eat one another alive? Not quite.

The data—based on analyzing the 307,000 accounts, spanning 70 countries, that use InfluencerDB’s cloud analytics products—have a twist.  Influencer sponsored content still performs better than nonsponsored content—and it has since the second quarter of 2016. That means you’re more inclined to like a nail polish ad from influencers than a photo of their lunch or their dog. (Influencers can make up to $10,000 per sponsored post.)

There are a few possible reasons for that. The first is that influencers are actually putting in more work to create high-quality content for their ad partners than they do for their own content. InfluencerDB suggests it’s also possible that influencers could be purchasing likes to satisfy clients, or that followers engage with posts simply as a way to cheer on their favorite influencers. Finally, could Instagram’s own algorithms prioritize sponsored posts? Instagram insists they do not.

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In any case, the larger issue is that Instagram’s user interface seems to be at odds with the influencapocalypse. Influencers are competing for our mindshare in the extremely limited funnel of our feeds. As a result, everyone we follow seems to be selling us something all the time—even when they actually have more to say.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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