One week ago, 21-year-old influencer and photographer Tati Bruening was scrolling through Instagram and became annoyed over the fact that she was only seeing a seemingly endless stream of Reels, even though she wasn’t in the Reels tab. Where were the photos of her friends? In her frustration, Bruening threw together a meme—half-jokingly, she insists—calling for the powers that be to “Make Instagram Instagram Again.” She posted it to the photo-sharing app and even made an accompanying petition with her demands on Change.org.
Although Bruening had no expectations about her meme, it began to rack up hundreds and then thousands of likes as it raced through Instagram. On Monday, her meme was shared by Kylie Jenner, who, with 362 million followers, is Instagram’s most-followed woman. Jenner’s sisters, Instagram power users Kim and Kourtney Kardashian (327 million and 192 million followers, respectively), also joined in and shared the meme, making it ricochet with a resounding echo into the mainstream media. Meanwhile, her petition collected more than 136,000 signatures on Friday alone (today, it has more than 238,000).
Bruening had struck a nerve. “Make Instagram Instagram Again” had gone viral.
“It went crazy,” Bruening told Gizmodo. “And it became clear to me what I had to do next to foster this conversation.”
Bruening shared her thoughts with Gizmodo in an interview Friday, including her desire to sit down with Instagram head Adam Mosseri. On Instagram’s race against TikTok to avoid becoming yesterday’s news, which seems to be the impetus for its much-maligned product changes, she maintains there is “absolutely” room for both apps. Bruening would know. She’s also an influencer on TikTok, where she has more than 2.5 million followers, versus 329,000 on Instagram.
“TikTok has such a different audience and such a different type of content than Instagram does. I completely view them as non-competitors between each other,” she said. “I think that Instagram serves a purpose of connecting with people in real life, and TikTok serves the purpose more so for entertainment.”
After the meme’s initial explosion, the photographer continued to encourage folks on Instagram to share her meme and sign her petition. She also began talking to the press about her concerns, including moving away from an algorithm that favors photos and “trying to be TikTok.” Pretty soon, it seemed like a large swath of the internet was complaining about how their feeds were flooded with posts and Reels from random people they didn’t follow and other recent changes to the app.
The entire situation quickly became impossible for Instagram to ignore. After the Kardashian-Jenners complained, Mosseri addressed the uproar in a diplomatic tone on Tuesday. However, in the end, he basically said: “sorry, not sorry.” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Instagram’s parent company, Meta, threw even more salt on the wound on Wednesday when he said that by 2023, more than 30% of users’ Instagram feeds would be filled with AI-recommended content from people they weren’t following in the interest of, you guessed it, money.
Judging by the amount of online vitriol at Zuckerberg’s announcement, which was also present in Gizmodo’s own comment section, users had become even angrier over what was going on with Instagram. That’s no doubt why, on Thursday, Mosseri and Meta apologized for “failing,” notifying users they were pausing a full-screen test of the app—which had been rolled out to a small percentage of users who hated it—and temporarily reducing the amount of AI-recommended content in users’ feeds.
“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,” Mosseri told the newsletter Platformer on Thursday.
Bruening, for her part, was thrilled to hear the news. After a rollercoaster week, she felt that having Instagram’s chief executive address the community’s concern was an important step.
“It’s a win for Instagram as well because it shows how passionate we all are about this app and how much we want to see it succeed,” Bruening said. “That’s very important, and I think that they should be proud that their community has given feedback and that we are all in this together to make this app a better place.”
Gizmodo spoke to Bruening on Friday to learn firsthand about how her meme-driven movement exploded and created change, however temporary it may be. In the interview, the influencer-photographer talked about how Instagram has changed in the decade she’s been on it—from an app to check in on your social circle to a platform where “[e]veryone is an influencer now and everyone is a brand.”
You can read Gizmodo’s interview with Bruening below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Gizmodo: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got started on Instagram? When did you create an account and why did you create it?
Bruening: I’ve been on Instagram for over a decade. I think that when I was in middle school it was the new craze and everyone had one. I was like, ‘I need to make an Instagram too!’ And so, I made an Instagram at the age of, like, 11 or 12 or something like that. I couldn’t tell you the rationality behind it. But I’ve spent nearly my entire teen and adult years on Instagram.
Gizmodo: Gotcha. So, when you started out, what did you use Instagram for? And as time evolved, did that change? I know that based on your recent posts, you’re using it for your photography.
Bruening: When I first started out on Instagram back in the day, I would just see what kids from my school were up to outside of just their school life. And, in my teen years, I was using it to try and become a model. I kind of dropped that and started doing concert photography, which turned into portrait photography, which turned into what I have now.
Gizmodo: How would you describe what you have now?
Bruening: The funniest thing is it’s so hard for me to be able to pinpoint what exactly I do. I mainly [do] photography, but I also do a lot of self-portrait work and I also talk a lot about beauty, fashion, digital art. So, I would just say that I am a multimedia hyphenate of everything. Anything creative—that’s pretty much what I would pin myself up to be.
Gizmodo: Looking at your follower count, you have more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. Do you consider yourself to be an influencer?
Bruening: I personally don’t like the word “influencer,” but I would consider myself more to be a creator. But just based on what’s happened in this past week or so, I would definitely say that I have some form of influence over my peers, which is really cool. So, in some way, I guess an influencer, but I wouldn’t like that title.
Gizmodo: What would you say are the biggest differences from the time when you created your Instagram account to the way the app is now?
Bruening: Obviously, everything has changed. I would say the functionality of the app. There’s so many more features and it’s becoming more and more like an all-encompassing social app.
Back in the day, Instagram was used just between your social groups and like occasionally to see what celebrities are up to. And now that everybody has a chance of being a celebrity, to some degree, a micro influencer, an influencer, or anything in between, it’s become this more wide range app where everyone’s a celebrity. And now we’re seeing that social media is becoming less social, if that makes sense. Everyone is an influencer now and everyone is a brand.
Gizmodo: What would you say is your favorite thing about Instagram?
Bruening: I like being able to just share my silly little photos. I think that at the end of the day, that’s what the app was founded upon. And I still come back to come back to it every day just to share my silly photos, you know? I like to share my art with other people and hopefully tell stories. I consider myself to be a storyteller. And if I get to tell my stories in one single frame and share it with the world, with my platform, then I’m happy at the end of the day.
Gizmodo: Let’s talk about your meme. Why do you think it resonated with so many people?
Bruening: I think that timing is impeccable when it comes to memes. At the time, the new update had just rolled out and I was just like, ‘Eh, I’m annoyed.’ It just was that momentary frustration. I think that the way that it was phrased, it was something catchy enough that people could get behind and, I don’t know. I think that it started out in the photography community, which is one of the communities that suffered through the algorithm changes the most. And from there, it expanded.
Gizmodo: Have you personally seen any change in who your posts are reaching or any other change in how your posts are performing?
Bruening: Although I have improved my photography significantly and my content has improved tenfold, because of the fact that I’m a photo-based influencer / user / creator, people see less of my work, unfortunately. Because it’s not what the Explore page, what the recommendations, and what timeline favors.
Gizmodo: You just touched on something that I feel a lot of people are sounding off about on Twitter and on Instagram, the fact that people are just under a lot of pressure to pivot to video or under a lot of pressure to make Reels. Have you felt that pressure yourself? Have you also decided to do videos or do Reels in recent months or in recent years because of this shift?
Bruening: Absolutely. And the one thing that made it easy for me is because of the fact that I am also a video-based creator. With my audience of two and a half million followers on TikTok, they’re used to seeing video content from me. So, it was pretty seamless for myself to figure out how to incorporate photo and photography into video content. But throughout the rest of the photography community, it’s very difficult to learn how to show photography and teach photography through a video format.
Gizmodo: What would you say are the main differences between your TikTok account and your Instagram account?
Bruening: The main difference is my TikTok is a little bit more playful and young. My Instagram is more artistic and curated and elevated, I would say.
The tone of TikTok is more playful, so it’s more difficult for me to express my more curated kind of thoughts on it. It doesn’t fit as well on TikTok as it does on Instagram. Everything on my TikTok feels younger and it feels more like social media-y, if that makes sense.
Gizmodo: One of the things that’s been written about again and again is that Instagram is worried about becoming yesterday’s news because of the rise of TikTok. Those comments have proven to be true. Do you feel that there’s room for both of these apps since you are on both?
Bruening: Absolutely. I absolutely think that there’s room for both apps. TikTok has such a different audience and such a different type of content than Instagram does. I completely view them as non-competitors between each other. I think that Instagram serves a purpose of connecting with people in real life, and TikTok serves the purpose more so for entertainment. You don’t go on Instagram to scroll for hours and get entertained by people. I think that you go on there more so to connect with people and to see what people are up to. TikTok is more of a place of escapism, whereas Instagram is more of like a reality check.
Gizmodo: I’m curious. You say that it’s a reality check, but one of the biggest criticisms that Instagram has received in recent years is that it’s very curated and there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect on the app. Would you still agree that it reflects reality?
Bruening: It depends on user to user. I know that the way that I use Instagram, I’m very real and very candid on my stories and on my side accounts. In terms of the average user, I wouldn’t be able to place what their feed looks like and how much they’re trying to make their life look like something else. But I think that reality check would be less of the correct phrase for it, so if I may say something more like a ‘check in’ with what your friends are up to. It is true at the end of the day, social media is just a curation of what we want people to see, not what we actually are.
Gizmodo: Back to your meme. It went viral. The Kardashian-Jenner sisters have supported it. Have you been in touch with the Kardashian-Jenner sisters or anyone from their team?
Bruening: I personally haven’t.
Gizmodo: Would you like to? Would you like to say, ‘hey, thank you for supporting this?’ I actually think you did on your stories, right?
Bruening: I absolutely said ‘thank you so much for sharing.’ You know, if Kylie and Kim ever want to hang out and grab coffee, they’re more than welcome.
Gizmodo: Did you make any money off of your meme since it exploded in popularity?
Bruening: No. I haven’t made any money off of it. But I mean, how could you monetize just a photo? You know what I mean?
Gizmodo: In Meta’s Q2 financial earnings report released this week, we learned that one of the reasons that Instagram and Facebook are pivoting to Reels and recommendations is because of money, and the negative effect of that the current economic pressures are having on digital advertising. Do you think that that justifies the recent changes that they’ve made to Instagram?
Bruening: This is a difficult question because I don’t know the user statistics and I don’t know the whole story, so I can only comment based on what I’ve seen. But, I think that in terms of their justification for moving more towards video content and moving more towards an algorithm changing to favor video is because video can obviously have more watch time and gather more user data and be able to serve you more promoted advertisements and promoted content. I don’t know if that’s what their game plan is, but that’s what would make sense in my head as to why they would do that.
But at the end of the day, I don’t really find them having to do that because of the fact that their user base is asking for something else. And if the users aren’t happy, then what was the point?
Gizmodo: Something else that people have been saying is that Instagram is seeing a rise in engagement with videos and Reels because the app is pushing more of this content on users. What are your thoughts on that?
Bruening: I think this is actually a really interesting argument, and I believe that Adam Mosseri commented on that in an interview with The Verge. I can’t recall his exact response, but it was actually quite interesting. In terms of in terms of my personal opinion on that statement, I think it is true that we’re seeing the rise of more Reels and more video content because creators are pressured into making it in order to get more reach. If us as creators want to keep up our business of being able to monetize ourselves, we have to have high engagement.
That being said, unless we’re making video content to get that high engagement, we’re being left in the dust and your business is going to suffer… You would be stupid as an influencer to not make Reels at this point because of the fact that that’s what you need to keep up your business.
Gizmodo: Regarding your business, do you have your personal business on Instagram or do you have another full-time job and just do Instagram on the side?
Bruening: It’s a bit of both. Obviously, I’m a photographer full-time. That being said, I am signed to Outshine Talent [a boutique talent management agency] and they take care of my photography bookings, which is pretty much a full-time job in itself. But aside from that, I do more influencer type of brand deals, where I’ll show off a new makeup palette or like do a fashion line or something as an influencer, as well. So, I would say that it’s like a hodgepodge of both. I think that I’m a really interesting creator to a lot of brands and companies because of the fact that I do so many different types of things. I can create a different type of content for them because of the fact that I have so many different ways of making content.
Gizmodo: When we spoke yesterday, the announcement about the pause to the full screen test and the decrease in recommendations had just come out. And, you know, so now that you’ve had a bit more time to process the news, do you do you have any more thoughts that you would like to share?
Bruening: I just want to say how much of a positive forward step I think this is for our community and user feedback. I think that it absolutely is a win because of the fact that Instagram has listened to our thoughts and the way that we feel about certain updates and the fact that they’re taking some action proves that we as users have the power to give feedback and make real change.
I think that that’s something very important for us to know going forward as users of the app, that if we don’t like something, we have the power to say something about it. I think that that’s going to be really important for us going forward should there be updates that we want to like, ridicule, or whatever it may be. I think that that’s really important. I think it’s a win for Instagram as well because it shows how passionate we all are about this app and how much we want to see it succeed. I think that’s very important, and I think that they should be proud that their community has given feedback and that we are all in this together to make this app a better place.
Gizmodo: Has anyone from Instagram or Meta been in touch?
Bruening: Not with me directly.
Gizmodo: What kind of response did you get from your followers after you posted the news about the full-screen pause and decrease in recommendations yesterday?
Bruening: I had two different types of responses. With the first response, I was completely overwhelmed with people being like, ‘Thank you, @illumitati for fixing Instagram.’ Now that’s a wild statement. It is a wild statement because it was not just of me walking up to the Instagram HQ making a demand [to fix] Instagram. I just posted the meme and started the movement. It really is the community that came together to support my message that [caused] real change and, of course, the Kardashians boosting it and getting it to the mainstream press. I’ve been completely bombarded with responses like that, and it’s been it’s been quite overwhelming.
The second response that I’ve gotten is people saying, ‘Well, this isn’t enough.’ And I haven’t been able to respond to those because I think that we weren’t expecting anything to happen with this petition or with this post going viral, and the fact that we have any sort of response and any sort of action being taken is a win. I think that people need to realize that this was a meme from the start, and it turned into a real movement and a real petition that made change. And that is awesome.
Gizmodo: Piggybacking on that, Instagram has not addressed many of the demands in your petition. In fact, even when it comes to reducing recommendations, it’s said that it’s not going to do this indefinitely. So is pausing the full screen beta and reducing recommendations for a limited time enough? Do you think they need to do more?
Bruening: In my personal opinion, I think that this is, again, a good step in the direction of getting back to a place where everybody’s happy on Instagram. I think that action does absolutely speak louder than words from them, so I’m curious to see what they’re going to do moving forward. What that looks like, it’s up to them to decide what they’re going to do to change this app in the future. At this point, my hands are off the reins and I’m curious to see what’s going to happen going forward. I think that I can’t further comment on that until I see what type of action is being taken from them.
Gizmodo: What are your plans going forward with regards to the “Make Instagram Instagram Again” movement?
Bruening: This is a tough one. I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. I’ve honestly been taking what Mosseri has been saying and seeing how people have been feeling on a day-by-day basis along with my team, who’s been incredibly helpful in figuring out the best way to speak to people and the best way to handle and foster this movement. So, as something that has just kind of fallen into my lap, I think that it’s best for me to figure out how to take this on a day by day basis rather than trying to predict the future.
Gizmodo: If you could say anything to Adam Mosseri, what would it be?
Bruening: I just want to say thank you for listening to our concerns as users and that this is completely unprecedented. I didn’t think that this would blow up as much as it did. This is a very difficult question to answer because I haven’t actually thought about this, and I would like to sit down with him and talk about this at some time offline and just chat. I think that this has been a really interesting internet moment, and him responding and having communication from head of Instagram to users has been really, really vital to Instagram as an app and as a community.