I sent an email this afternoon to Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, asking him to put pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to reallocate funds in the city’s budget away from the police and into programs that benefit New Yorkers. The email – a thoughtful three paragraphs – took me under a minute to send. Not because I wrote it, but because Ajani Russell, an artist and star of Betty on HBO, used her platform to share a link in an Instagram Story that auto-populated the email when I swiped up on it. All I had to do was fill in the blanks for my name and my borough of residence and hit send.
On Instagram, “swipe up” means your account has been deemed worthy of having the tool that allows users to add links to their Instagram Stories. If a user links something to a story slide, the viewer can swipe up from the bottom and be directed to that user’s designated link. This feature is currently only available to verified users and accounts with over 10,000 followers. Being verified really just means that Instagram has confirmed you are who you say you are. Instagram could elect to verify every account, but it chooses not to. (This is not a new argument when it comes to ways social platforms could make themselves safer, but don’t.) The 10,000 follower mark is also a seemingly random benchmark to designate what a so-called significant following looks like.
This means that the group of people who have access to the swipe up feature is limited largely to celebrities, news outlets, and influencers. That last group is, notably, overwhelmingly white. Which is to say swipe up is not a thing a diverse group of everyday users have access to. That’s a missed opportunity. The platform should take this moment to grant access to all of its users. Swipe up has never been more useful for good. Links to places to donate money. Links to information about protests and marches. Links to anti-racism educational materials. Links to powerful articles by black writers. A key to getting people to take any action online is to make the process as easy as possible. Universal swipe up enables this accessibility.
On Tuesday, Instagram was clogged up with an unending stream of black, square posts from people attempting to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The original idea, called Black Out Tuesday, started as campaign by two black music industry veterans asking their colleagues to spend the day amplifying black voices and grappling with all the ways in which black culture inspires every square inch of the arts and entertainment business. Instead, like a digital version of the whispering telephone game, that important message was watered down to become countless well-intentioned people doing the bare minimum of virtue signaling with a black screen. People posting the squares with #BlackLivesMatter all but took over the hashtag, meaning vital protest information and resources were drowned out. Given the algorithmic nature of Instagram – posts are shown based on what a computer program thinks you would like to see, instead of the order in which they are posted – the posts are still appearing in people’s feeds. Which means resources and information about ongoing actions are getting suppressed. But that endless sea of black boxes is a good reminder that there are ample people out there trying, however errantly, to figure out how to be helpful. Those boxes might have been a misfire, but an Instagram Story from that same user with a pertinent link would not be. There’s clearly a demand for swipe up for all, Instagram just needs to provide the supply.
Instagram giving the swipe up feature to everyone would put the tool in the hands of smaller community organizers and activists. It would mean accounts like @JusticeForGeorgeFloyd, a new account that acts as a centralized hub for protest information in the five boroughs, would be able to post not just information limited to story slides and grid images. (The account does not appear to have swipe up capabilities, despite its rapidly growing follower count.) Sure, users without swipe up can put a single link in their Instagram account bio which will remain until they choose to remove it, but that’s not nearly as helpful. Most people aren’t looking at bios if they are watching stories. There’s also the option to put a typed out link in an Instagram caption but that’s an inefficient pain that requires too much to work at scale given you can’t copy and paste from a caption. Putting the link text in a story slide, where viewers likewise can’t copy and paste, is even less effective. None of these options allow a viewer to easily click through to multiple outside sources. Instagram already has the technology to help people help people. They just have to choose to share it with everyone.