As social media platforms grow more popular, younger audiences tend to flee in search of newer alternatives. This generation is no different. Pew Research Center recently reported that fewer teenagers than ever are using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. But that doesn’t mean that younger users are finished with the content from those sites altogether. Instead, Instagram — still hugely popular as a place to post glossy, aspirational images of your vacation, your coffee, or gratuitous selfies — has grown into a home away from home to consume screenshots of the best content from those services.
“Facebook is dead. Tumblr is for people stuck in 2011 and Warped Tour (sorry). Snapchat is irrelevant to the point that I don’t even know why I’m mentioning it,” Cori Amato Hartwig, a New York-based 22-year-old who runs an account called @manicpixiememequeen, tells The Verge. “Instagram and Twitter are the only social media platforms that matter, especially to millennials.” For Hartwig, Instagram’s image-first identity is suited to meme culture, which she says thrives and connects more easily. “Memes lend themselves to be shared as a full image, with the text of the meme actually attached to the image itself,” she says.
Some of these Instagram meme accounts have followers in the millions, and many aren’t just aggregating content; they’re creating their own on Twitter or Tumblr, and then posting screenshots to Instagram. For some meme creators, Twitter and Tumblr are a canvas, while Instagram is the wall where they display their work. Part of the reason is that for meme creators looking to build an audience, Twitter just doesn’t cut it.
“Pardon my language, but Twitter is shit when it comes to meme,” says Anuj, creator of @abuttwithaview, an Instagram account focused on memes related to gay culture. Anuj, a 30-year-old based in India, started the account two years ago after finding inspiration in other meme accounts on the platform. And like many of them, his content is typically screenshots of text or composite text-and-image posts from Twitter and Tumblr. “The formatting in Twitter is such that if you put a picture, it gets cropped and the whole meme is not visible on the wall, unless you click on the tweet,” he explains.
Success on one platform also doesn’t necessarily cross over onto others. On Instagram, @manicpixiememequeen has more than 48K followers; on Twitter, it has just over 1K. The same goes for accounts like @heyqueentv (125K on Instagram vs. 27K on Twitter, @grapejuiceboys (835K Instagram followers, about 750 on Twitter), and so on.
“You’d think, ‘I have a viral account on Instagram. Almost 50,000 people pay attention to me. Surely they care about what I’m tweeting?’” says Hartwig. “But people absolutely do not give a single shit about what you’re tweeting,” she says. “When I post on Instagram, I can expect about 2,000 likes a post. With Twitter, I expect about two retweets and 20 to 30 likes.” She says Twitter rewards trends and current social relevancy, while Instagram offers more topical flexibility.
In theory, Twitter should make sharing content easy; retweets are a vital part of its model, and you can share anything with one click. Going viral on Twitter is also a double-edged sword: even if you pop off a good joke, its success is unlikely to reward you with substantial new followers, and most meme creators are looking to build a fan base, not just go viral for 15 minutes. Having viral tweets can often make the platform virtually unusable, not only because of spam, but due to the personal harassment and dogpiling that often accompanies it.
The way users relate to collections of memes on Instagram is also different, says 23-year-old Gabriella, the woman behind @sighswoon. “People are way more willing to communicate with an idea present in a meme than they are with an idea from a specific person/face,” she says. “It feels like a separate force, and an idea gets to float with no bias. Kinda mystical.”
If there’s one advantage to Twitter, it’s that it allows nudity — a policy far more lax than that of Instagram, which won’t even tolerate certain kinds of nipples. But Twitter’s discovery mechanisms also make it harder to encounter new content. What users see is spoon-fed directly to their timeline via a curated list of followers, and searching by hashtag means sorting through hundreds or thousands of text tweets. Even trending topics are relegated to an easily overlooked sidebar.
Instagram’s Discovery tab also outpaces its Twitter counterpart when it comes to attracting new followers. It takes only a few seconds to flick through an entire page of images, and just a few more to refresh for new ones. Because the exploration tab on Instagram is so readily accessible, users can more easily browse similar content. For meme creators, this ramps up their potential to draw in bored browsers who become devoted followers.
“If you are already not famous/twitter celeb [sic], then I found that Instagram gets you more engagement than Twitter,” says Anuj. He points to the system’s hashtags, which creators can pile on easily without detracting from the post itself. “But on Twitter nobody uses hashtags, using multiple hashtags on Twitter is so 2011,” he says. “For [example], I can use #meme #gaymeme #instameme #funny #lol like this on Instagram as much as I like. But not Twitter. 1) it will make you uncool. 2) all the hashtags will appear with your meme’s text and it looks bad.”
When it comes to social media, aesthetic and accessibility is everything. While Twitter is constantly redesigning its platform, much to the predictable outrage of its user base, Instagram has remained fairly straightforward, making it an ideal staging ground for all kinds of meme creativity. After finding her brief Twitter experience “cluttered and anxious,” Gabriella sees meme accounts as mostly the purview of creative and alternative types who, like her, might find Instagram more pleasing anyway.
“Instagram feels a little more artistic, like the creative merit of a meme is more celebrated on the Instagram platform over Twitter or Facebook, which I believe flourish in other ways,” she says. “Twitter seems more hype-based and news-based, all about sharing opinions and standing by them. Instagram is more playful and about aesthetics and images and inspiration.”