Instagram has long been an unofficial shopping platform, where people (i.e., me) can purchase useless stuff (i.e., novelty winged cat pins) while tipsily scrolling through their feeds at 1 a.m. Now the social network is acknowledging its marketplace power in a big way. Starting March 19, Instagram will allow users to purchase products directly through the app. Let’s take a moment of silence for everyone’s (i.e., my) bank accounts.
The new feature, called “Checkout,” launches in a “closed beta” form for U.S. users Tuesday. It will initially be limited to 20 brands, and a quick overview of that list reveals a lot about what has driven the current Instagram aesthetic. Among the first group whose wares will be available via the platform: high-end designers like Balmain and Prada that are frequently favored by a certain rank of influencer; major fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Uniqlo that benefit from zeitgeisty collaborations; internet-first favorites like Revolve, Warby Parker, and Outdoor Voices [extremely singsongy “content creator” voice: #doingthings!]; athleisure giants like Nike and Adidas that have cashed in on the online sneaker economy; and not one, but two Kardashian family makeup brands—Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty—which probably wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for their founders’ massive online followings.
By anointing these well-known brands as the Checkout trailblazers, Instagram seems to be making its priorities clear: The app likely wants to keep demonstrating its capabilities as a massive moneymaker. Meanwhile, small businesses have always had trouble working with a platform whose algorithm changes with the wind. For now, none of that will change. (The company does not currently have a timeline for when individual businesses will be able to apply for Checkout capabilities.)
The tap-to-buy feature is the most significant shopping update Instagram has instituted. The platform has been slowly building up to this moment. In June 2018, it created a Stories tag in the form of a shopping bag that users could tap to “learn more” about a featured product. In September, Instagram launched a “shopping channel” on the discovery tool it calls “Explore.” Recently, Instagram has more seamlessly integrated advertising into both the static and Stories feeds by allowing sponsored posts from third-party accounts (read: influencers). But this latest update is a likely game-changer: The ability to scroll (to a photo of a hot person wearing a sweater you like), tap (the sweater to see it close up), and buy (by pressing a big, blue button that says, “Checkout on Instagram”) will likely cause sales within the app to skyrocket—especially once users have saved their contact and payment information.
The culture of Instagram centers on highly curated photography, hard bodies, and expensive, aspirational merchandise. At its best, that means it can connect would-be consumers to a cool new tech toy or bathing suit. But at its worst, it means fueling purchases by tapping into insecurities. Historically, Instagram has fostered an environment full of overwhelming self-doubt and envy. One 2017 survey in the U.K. found that spending too much time on the social network could have the effect of FOMO, sleeping problems, and body-image issues. Another study says it can increase feelings of depression and loneliness. And those are exactly the type of psychological circumstances that tend to inspire materialism. As we’ve seen with products like Flat Tummy Tea and waist trainers, the right diet-centric product placement in a hot Kardashian pic is exactly the one-two punch to sucker people into a purchase.
Based on what we know about how Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, operates—that is, seemingly without moral direction—it seems inevitable that all these insecurities will somehow be institutionalized in algorithm form. Advertisers have been perfecting this art for decades. And it’s no accident that the most controversial tech company in the world is about to change how we shop. In the short term, it will most likely make purchasing more convenient for the Instagram-obsessed among us. I’m just imagining all the workout pants and statement jewelry I’m going to buy. The long-term outlook is anyone’s guess. Either way, the Kardashians will get even richer.