Why go to the mall when you can look at Instagram?

You can’t hide.
You can’t hide.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Instagram has turned into an endless shopping experience, almost like a mall. It lets you wander, browse, even have some fun—but everything is designed to make you spend more money without any obstacles.

Some of this transformation has been obvious, a result of concrete steps by the app, and some has been a gradual, somewhat surreptitious, process.

The Information reported Aug. 22 that when Facebook started cracking the whip on Instagram last year to push the app to bring in even more profit, it ordered the photo-sharing app to double the number of ads on the platform.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed last week, I found that for every three regular posts, one was an ad. On Stories, it varied, with ads sometimes showing up between every two, three, or four Stories. As of this year, there are also now ads in the Explore tab, where users discover posts from accounts they don’t follow.

The company has also been making it easier to buy directly on Instagram, introducing Checkout, where users can purchase products right from brand posts and influencers on Instagram, without ever exiting the app. Companies can also now inject posts from influencers hawking their products into your feed as ads, even if you don’t follow the brand or influencer.

And it seems like consumers are on board with the changes. A survey by analysts at Deutsche Bank showed that 39% of those who had used Checkout cited its ”ease of use” as the draw, while 59% of users have clicked on a sponsored link for a product.

Instagram has become the mall is right at our fingertips—or a mail-order catalog—tailored directly to your interests.

The app has also helped create a certain kind of brand, which in order to be successful has to have a distinct social media personality. Following athleisure brand Outdoor Voices on Instagram often doesn’t feel like following a company that’s trying to sell you products. It’s selling a lifestyle, and it just so happens that this lifestyle appears to be fun, and it looks great in the brand’s colorful clothing. Makeup brand Glossier, luggage-maker Away, and even bedsheet company Brooklinen all curate their own versions of an Instagrammable life, peppered with their products.

There are multiple California-based clothing lines that pride themselves on being sustainable, and project a free-spirited image, so following them is mostly just looking at pretty pictures of luscious French landscapes or women frolicking in fields full of flowers. Of course, they are prancing around in beautiful prairie dresses, but since it’s just a picture, you don’t feel like someone is hawking a product.

In between these brand posts, there might also be post from influencers you follow, because you like their style or their message. The entire influencer value proposition is based on the premise of promoting a lifestyle, of just wearing or using a product, and not simply selling it. The influencers who are good at their job make it seem less obvious that they are shills for brands. At the same time, the influencer economy has exploded so rapidly, recommending products is no longer a way to support bloggers in their creative endeavors, but a job in itself.

Teens used to hang out at malls to shop or browse, but mostly to idly spend time with friends. Now they can easily do that kind of hanging out and passing time on their phone, but the mall’s consumerism creep has caught up, via Instagram.