Instagram didn’t roll out its “revenue exchange” the same time it began planning to add sponsored posts. But I’ve uncovered some revenue exchange text buried in the service’s March 2010 major app update that hints at where it might have been headed. It’s a joke-like meme that asks users to click a series of triangle shapes so it becomes “Revenue Exchange”. But don’t worry! It’s totally fake and a bug. But it indicates a subtle but potentially significant change in Instagram’s business strategy that earned the service a spot on TechCrunch’s list of the 100 best apps of 2015.
Here’s the joke meme, alluding to Instagram’s now-defunct feature called “Qwitter” that showed users at a social event when they update the app with their login info. This always made the app look active, letting Instagram track them. If Instagram got rich from these ads, you could see it becoming more serious about advertising. But that’s all hypothetical.
Oh, and don’t get too excited.
Did that little thing happen? Instagram’s Notify now sends out alerts to let you know when you’ve received a message. But all that does is show you when a Like button was used to ship a message to someone you follow on Instagram. You could also add more Notifications from Instagram to display Twitter DMs, Facebook notifications, app updates, and weather.
The paste was put together by YouTuber Hellofun, who shared it as a screenshot on his channel. Of course, using emoji or sound effects to make poop, sex, and ketchup sounds funny, but it’s also fair game for someone making an at-the-time big ad offering. Meanwhile, the notifications appear to stay on for every interaction a user has.
Instagram spokesman Rob Shuter tells me “When we are making changes to Instagram, we are focused on providing a better way for our community to connect and experience the service without intrusive ads. Notify is a feature that delivers the most important notifications to users in a way that is unobtrusive.”
Overall, this helps feel like Instagram just started selling ads. In fact, TechCrunch discovered that it may have been considering a revenue exchange feature when it rolled out its flagship app in March 2010. A new “Top Stories” tab in the app called “Conversations” featured trending photos that already had Instagram followers. It looked like this was Instagram’s way of forcing you to join a Sponsored Account so you wouldn’t miss your favorite photo.
That’s before Instagram opened up the ability to Instagram Direct to everyone in February 2010, offering direct messaging the the service. Back then, Instagram didn’t make money off Direct messages like it does today. But it seemed at the time to be working on features to show what brands had to offer.
For now, Instagram Direct is only supporting private messages to business accounts. But given the importance of messaging to the internet, it’s been seen as a strong method for building brand awareness. That could be how Instagram could bring more brands onto the platform. The anonymous, 140-character platform has the most engaged user base online.
Despite the advertising potential of Instagram, it seems like the team is intent on keeping the rest of its users feeling happy and active. It didn’t roll out its “Revenue Exchange” feature like it’s promised. But it still launched 150 tests in the last year to learn whether its existing features worked better or they were intrusive. It then announced the revenue exchange option in October, removing native ad units and offering Instagram Stories to apps like Snapchat that could advertise more passively.
That’s why it’s surprising that Instagram didn’t launch its revenue exchange earlier. It started to resemble Twitter. And as it faces pressure from competitors to show more engagement from brands, it could worry that less sharing could turn off users.
But Instagram might also be making strides towards becoming more of a social media ad-selling platform. That would be a major change for the site, much different than its roots as a creator platform. It’s unsure whether ads would actually get users to share less or if the activity and interest graph around a brand would encourage more. The side effect might be a more valuable product for monetization, one that could get users to feel more satisfied with its product.