While the chief of Instagram faced a Senate panel, business kept rolling along for the flagship platform of parent company Meta last week, with Facebook announcements designed to dangle more carrots in front of creators.
Appearing in front of the Senate commerce, science and transportation subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety and data security, Instagram chief executive officer Adam Mosseri found himself in the hot seat, as elected officials grilled him over reports that Instagram failed to protect young users.
Following a blockbuster whistle-blower report and leaked internal research on the platform’s harmful psychological effects on some teenagers, the Senate subcommittee terrogated Mosseri, in the 38-year-old executive’s first congressional testimony.
A key facet of the inquiry centered on Instagram’s ranking algorithms and how they guide what kids see in their feeds. They’re the same sort of algorithms that drive which products show up for purchase and shape creators’ popularity, based on engagement. Mosseri indicated that the company was working on a feature to allow chronological ranking, which could launch next year.
“I recognize that many in this room have deep reservations about our company,” he said. “But I want to assure you that we do have the same goal. We all want teens to be safe online.”
He pointed to a new safety feature unveiled on Dec. 7 that helps kids track time online and encourages them to “take a break.”
But that hardly scratches the surface of what officials want to see. While Instagram, like other major tech companies, keeps details of their data intelligence systems and algorithms confidential, lawmakers want more transparency about what makes them tick. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) introduced a bill that could require tech platforms to reveal how they use data to rank content.
The testimony set the stage for an awkward week, as parent company Meta pressed forward, business as usual, on new tests at Facebook.
The details seem straightforward: On Dec. 8, the same day Mosseri faced senators, Facebook revealed that it’s testing “Professional” mode for profiles in the U.S. The feature lets select influencers monetize their followings directly, instead of creating a separate Facebook Page, and opens up pro-level capabilities.
“We want creators to reach their full potential on Facebook and that means giving you ways to earn money and providing insights so you can understand what types of posts resonate with your community,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Until now, these tools were only available on Pages.…With professional mode, eligible creators will be able to unlock revenue opportunities and gain access to tools to help grow their audience.”
The difference between a Page and a pro account seems subtle, but the distinction isn’t all that new. Consider a celebrity-owned product company versus a star whose personal brand is the business and generates revenue. For instance, Skims shapewear, beauty brand KKW Beauty and KKW Fragrance are distinct entities from Kim Kardashian West (although maintaining her celebrity is clearly an operation unto itself).
Meta warned that going pro turns creators into more public figures, since anyone can follow them and view their feed content. Creators can set posts to public or friends-only, it added, but didn’t specify whether posts are public by default, which seems likely. Individuals should factor that into their decision before switching their personal accounts.
But there are perks with the upgrade as well.
The company developed a new and potentially lucrative program tied to Reels, Instagram’s short-form video format. The feature launched on Facebook in September and now anchors a pilot called Reels Play, a bonus program that awards up to $35,000 monthly based on views. The program is available by invitation only to pro accounts.
Pro users also get Facebook Pages-like insights about audience, shares, reactions, follower growth and other details. Or they can stick with Pages, for which the company continues to develop. Facebook Page admins have a new dashboard for tools and performance tracking, plus new feed updates. A new two-step composer with built-in content scheduling and cross-posting to groups is in testing, too.
The changes roll up into Meta’s broader creator initiative. The company pledged to pay out $1 billion to the creator community, and the framework has been growing across gratuities, bonuses, subscriptions and other tactics. Last week, its livestream tipping program, Stars, shifted from in-app purchases to a new Facebook Pay-powered “Stars Store” to sidestep Apple and Google fees.
The moves across Facebook and Instagram seem disparate, but they weave a telling story.
Meta and Instagram use algorithms to help drive influencer popularity and create stars on their platforms, then they ply these creators with new and interesting ways to capitalize on the followings, whether through Instagram’s affiliate shops, Facebook pro accounts, tipping or other features. The goal is to offer strong incentives for people to create content and draw more fans.
This cycle creates a center of influence and online gravity that powers social commerce and may one day propel Meta chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse or virtual world. In an October earnings call, he listed creators among the company’s “three product priorities,” along with “commerce and building the next computing platform.”
The vision hinges on consumers and others staying engaged, shopping and creating content to feed ever-hungry demand, and younger users may be key, as they tend to be voracious social media users. According to surveys cited by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 have used social media.
The definition of “younger” is relative, of course. At Facebook and Instagram, the line is 13 years of age, with younger children prohibited from having accounts — though Instagram was reportedly working on a separate app for children younger than that, and Mosseri hasn’t committed to scrapping that plan. As for Meta’s latest plans, it did not specify if Facebook’s Pro mode has an age restriction. If not, it could set up teen influencers as public figures, and it’s not clear if there will be any protections.
As it is, users 13 years old and older remain welcome on the networks, and that benefits Meta’s commerce interests. According to Google, 68 percent of teenagers shop online.
Tech companies have other interests beyond merely protecting a valuable customer segment. The teen issue could open up broader scrutiny, as senators demand large platforms reveal how they use data and algorithms.
Big Tech has never willingly revealed such fundamental secrets without a fight. But last week, it showed that, even in the midst of intensifying pressure, it has no hesitation to showcase how it’s building on them.