Why does Facebook have more assholes than Instagram?

As of January 2017, SmartInsights.com reported that just over a third of the world’s population is now on some form of social media platform. That’s 2.8 billion humans scrolling through endless news feeds.

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1.8 billion of those folks are on Facebook, and 600 million are on Instagram. If Facebook was a country, it would be the most populated country in the world – trumping China by more than 400 million people.

What’s more, people spend an average of 2 hours per day on social media (which translates to a total of 5 years and 4 months spent over a lifetime). So there’s a huge chunk of the human population spending a significant amount of time in these virtual communities.

This would be fine if these communities were always friendly places to be. But, evidently, they aren’t at all.

Here are some alarming facts from a report from 2011:

  1. 88% of teens have witnessed cruelty on a social networking site.
  2. The number of sexual assault cases related to social media sites has increased by 300% (from when, the report doesn’t say).

This report found a significant correlation between social media use and suicide rates.

All of this tells us that people’s experiences in these social media communities have a very real impact on their lives in the real world. This is why it’s important to understand what makes people behave differently in different virtual environments.

They’re basically the same

To understand why people behave differently on different virtual platforms, let’s start with what these platforms have in common: they are both virtual communities which connect people via some form of content sharing. They both facilitate communicating directly with other users and discussing shared content.

Even though they’re essentially the same person in different clothes, people are noticeably friendlier on Instagram than they are on Facebook. Why?

Some smart people think it has something to do with the personas that people develop that are unique to each site.

“…these different personas stem from a desire to fit within the distinctive culture or etiquette of each site.”

So people behave in a way that fits into the culture of each site. But where does this culture come from? I’m going to argue that a unique culture emerges from the distinctive elements of each site.

Here’s what Ian Spalter, Instagram’s head of design, wrote in a blog post on Medium about Instagram’s 2016 rebrand:

“Brands, logos, and products develop deep connections and associations with people, so you don’t just want to change them for the sake of novelty. But the Instagram logo and design was beginning to feel, well… not reflective of the community, and frankly we thought we could make it better.”

Instagram’s design was updated to better reflect its community.

This confirms, at least in Instagram’s case, that these platforms are designed to reflect the culture of their particular community, and then the community mirrors that by behaving in a way that reflects the design.

We already know what’s similar. But that’s not really useful. To figure out where these individual cultures come from we’ll need to have a close look at what makes them different.

How are they different then?

Let’s take a stroll through what sets these platforms apart, starting with the design elements which make up the virtual environments.

Design elements


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What effect do colours have on the way people behave on Instagram and Facebook?

Facebook’s colour of choice is a deep blue accent, coupled with white. Blue is the colour most associated with communication, trust, and security. It’s also the world’s most popular colour. This makes it a good choice if you’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible, and make them feel safe.

What about Instagram? You may remember, amidst much uproar, they rebranded in early 2016, doing away with the much loved skeuomorphism in favour of a more restrained black and white design, with splashes of red and psychedelic gradients. Pretty much the opposite of Facebook’s colour palette. Red is good for conveying feelings of energy and passion.

So Facebook’s focus is on mass appeal and conveying security, while Instagram seems more focused on the free spirited “Do what you love!” demographic.


What typefaces do they each use?

Facebook favours Lucida Grande (Mac) and Tahoma (PC) for its text in the web interface, and for mobile, uses the system defaults Helvetica Neue (iOS) and Roboto (Android). (source)

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The Instagram website uses Proxima Nova for all text, with Neue Helvetica as a fallback.

The iOS version of the Instagram app uses Freight Sans for large type (usually centered headlines) and the system’s San Francisco for everything else. On Android, that system’s Roboto is used along with Freight. (source)

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As we can see, they both use clean, serif typefaces. If the typefaces have any effect, which they surely do, they must be in the subtle differences between these otherwise similar fonts.


Instagram’s logo is custom lettering, designed by Mackey Saturday. Here’s what he had to say about the design:

“It was always essential that the design maintained everything that we’ve all grown to know and love about Instagram while creating a logotype that was more refined, durable, and that positioned the brand for expansion. Looking to the past to inspire the future, the script connects with the nostalgia that Instagram was built from, maintains the important character of the original typeface, and places the brand in a unique and prominent position both in the current and future landscape.”

Even though the rest of the Instagram experience was updated, they kept the logo as a nod to the brand’s love for all things nostalgic.

Insta logo.png

Facebook’s logo is composed of lowercase letters of the custom Facebook Letter Faces typeface.FB logo.pngNothing controversial here, which is probably another swipe at being universally accepted.

Now for the differences that result from each of the design elements:

Higher engagement

Friendliness on these platforms isn’t binary (friendly vs. unfriendly), there are actually three options:

  1. Friendly engagement
  2. Unfriendly engagement
  3. No engagement

This is significant because Instagram has 70% higher engagement rates than Big Blue. Which means that the potential assholes aren’t just avoiding engaging with other people on Instagram. They’re engaging more, and in a more positive way.

Facebook is more messy

Instagram’s UI is a lot more focused than Facebook’s – the content is front and centre, and users aren’t distracted by events, groups, different kinds of posted content, continuous notifications about all of these features, games, apps, shops, surveys, and the rest…

Transparency and accountability

Facebook is a lot more transparent than Instagram. People record and make public their relations to family and friends.

This makes them more accountable because these family and friends become witnesses to all activity on the social network – you’d expect that someone would be a lot less likely to post something rude if they knew that their mom would see it in her timeline.

But if we look at Instagram, only a username and first and last name are generally used – and the latter two don’t even need to be your real names. No home address, phone number, or employment details. There’s a lot less information available to identify the human behind the social media account – they become anonymous.

Because of how the cloak of anonymity can give usually good samaritans the green light to do ghastly things, we would expect Facebook to be the friendlier neighbourhood to stroll through. But not so.

In a podcast interview, Alexis Ohanian, the CEO of Reddit argued that pseudonymity brings out the best in people, because they feel more comfortable sharing their true selves in a community of strangers than they would feel sharing with their Facebook, or even their real life friends.

To illustrate this point, he gave the example of a Syrian man coming out via Reddit — the man didn’t feel safe coming out to his physical peers for fear of persecution, but the pseudonymity provided by Reddit gave him a safe space to express his true self.

Ohanian also reported a miniscule 0.02% rate of negative behaviour on Reddit. I couldn’t find similar stats for other platforms for comparison and context.

If more accountability generally leads to nicer people, then why is Facebook not a nicer place than Instagram?

This only means that transparency and accountability aren’t the only factors in determining friendliness in a virtual community.

Answer the question now…

So, why does Facebook have more assholes than Instagram?

All of the abovementioned elements contribute in differing degrees to creating a distinct environment for each platform. Then, a particular culture emerges from each environment. And then users instinctively behave in a way that fits into that culture.

In retrospect, that seems pretty obvious though. Now that we know that virtual environments affect our behaviour to some significant degree, a more interesting question is, “How do we use this knowledge to create user experiences that make us better people?”



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