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The Rise of 'Grid Zero': Why more Instagram users are hiding their profile

An Instagram page where the user has hidden their entire photo grid. The trend is being led by younger members increasingly concerned for their privacy.
NPR
An Instagram page where the user has hidden their entire photo grid. The trend is being led by younger members increasingly concerned for their privacy.

Not too long ago Jacob Giancola, a music producer in Los Angeles, hid all the photos on his Instagram profile.

It wasn't exactly a revolutionary act, but his friends quickly took note.

"When people asked me, 'you're so mysterious, why do you do that?' I just say, 'I like the sense of privacy, I guess,'" said 28-year-old Giancola.

He's not the only one.

It's something that has become so prevalent on Instagram that I've decided to call it Grid Zero.

For these users, and there are a lot of them, the Instagram grid — traditionally the province of documenting life milestones and jaunts to Mallorca — has become something else: A deliberate blank slate.

Meta's Kim Garcia, who helps lead research into cultural trends on Instagram, said in an interview that Grid Zero is indeed a growing phenomenon. And it's being led mostly by Gen Z.

"They totally have this almost aversion to permanence and digital footprints," Garcia said. "Gez Z is growing up in this era that is so public. They don't have the same private spaces to explore, or be weird, or figure themselves out, that older generations, like myself as a millennial, had growing up."

Millennials, of course, grew up documenting their lives online. But a new era of social media oversaturation, thanks to TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram Stories and various other apps, have afforded Gen Z far fewer moments to escape the ever-present glare of being publicly chronicled on social media.

Instagram's Garcia said they're very much using the app, just more discreetly than their older peers.

"They're changing so rapidly, and they're evolving themselves every day," Garcia said. "They don't want all of that to be public all the time."

Grid Zero as a reaction to 'digital addiction'

The move away from the Instagram grid has been growing for years.

Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said recently that the platform has been shifting resources away from other parts of the platform and toward direct messaging.

That, he explained, is because the biggest growth areas have been DMs and Stories, which are temporary posts that show up prominently in the app.

Using the Instgram feed of main grid photos has been falling out of vogue for a while with young users.

"If you look at how teens spend their time on Instagram, they spend more time in DMs than they do in Stories, and they spend more time in Stories than they do in feed," Mosseri said on the podcast 20VC.

Dovetailing the decline in popularity of the grid has been more people ending the existence of their grid altogether.

But de-feeding your feed doesn't mean spending less time on Instagram; it just means you're probably flicking through Stories or messaging your friends — choosing fleeting or private interactions over social media permanence.

Snapchat and BeReal understood this preference shift long ago.

Instagram said young users continue to use fake Instagram accounts, also known as a "finsta," or "dump account," to share posts with a tigher-knit group of friends, often only after making their main profile Grid Zero.

It is a way of taking some control back, refusing to put your past on display. It's a design choice. Embracing negative space. Making anti-brand the brand.

"It feels to me like the immune system of humanity kicking in against some of this digital addiction," said Cassandra Marketos, a Los Angeles-based digital strategist.

It is also, according to Marketos, a form of self-protection.

"I think at this point we've seen enough stuff dug up from peoples' past, once they become unexpectedly famous, that it's a little bit scary to have a long digital tail hanging out behind you," she said. "And people just want to be buttoned up more than they did before."

Has the IG grid become 'cheugy'?

Instagram would not quantify exactly how much Grid Zero is on the upswing.

Those doing it, though, say the reasons vary. Of course, if you've decided to go Grid Zero, you may be a private person not trying to advertise the move, so might not want your name included here.

"No enthusiasm to post I guess," said one user. "I got weird about privacy," said another Gen Z user, explaining why she hid her entire grid. Someone else who has noticed the trend explained it this way: "Caring about an 'aesthetic' feed is 'cheugy'?" — using a word popular with Gen Z to describe someone who is out of fashion or trying too hard. "The less you care, the cooler you are."

When some Gen Z users are posting to their Instagram feeds, some are doing so sneakily, said Meta's Garcia.

"Basically what we're seeing is they will post on IG and immediately archive that post after it goes live, then they will take it out of their archives days later," she said. "So it doesn't appear on your friends' feeds but it shows up on your grid, almost like a little Easter Egg."

That is, adding a photo to your Instagram profile only if nobody knows.

For some Grid Zero adherents, there's another factor: how shrouding your social media footprint with some mystery can pique attention, place you slightly out-of-reach, and maybe make you more desirable or interesting than the guy whose feed runs all the way back to the first Obama administration.

"Intrigue feels like such a rarity these days," said Marketos, the LA digital strategist, "that when you encounter it, you're like a man in the desert who has found water."

A version of this story first appeared on One Thing, a Substack devoted to cultural observations and the internet.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.