Eugene the Instagram egg shows how broken the internet really is

Social media has the power to influence millions of people. Now, it's time for the tech giants to live up to their obligations to users

This egg became the most-liked photo on Instagram. Instagram
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

On the face of it, posting a picture of an egg on social media and achieving a record number of “likes” appears to be little more than a harmless stunt.

When, at the turn of the year, a London-based creative director did just that, via the Instagram photo-sharing app, the storm of controversy he whipped up was as unforeseen as it was harsh.

The egg was liked more than 50 million times. As the creators of the account hoped, this figure surpassed the previous most-liked image, which was posted by the model and influencer Kylie Jenner, by a huge margin.

Within weeks, Chris Godfrey, the man behind the idea, outed himself in a New York Times interview. "An egg has no gender, race or religion," said Mr Godfrey. "An egg is an egg, it's universal."

Alissa Khan-Whelan, a partner in the project, even gave the egg a name. “Eugene is really global all over the world,” she said. “He likes football. Or she, sorry. Or it.”

The reason for this statement was that the team had produced a commercial, featuring Eugene, which was aired during the Super Bowl – by far the year’s most prestigious and visible slot for American TV advertising. In it, the egg spoke of the impact of going viral on its wellbeing, directing viewers to the charity Mental Health America.

However, the use of Eugene’s enormous following to promote good causes has been questioned. Mr Godfrey’s career in advertising certainly didn’t help perceptions in many quarters. Meanwhile, the growing lack of trust in social media and digital marketing also overshadowed the original simplicity of his plan.

One marketing expert said the account could generate revenues of $10 million. Another described it as “basically a licence to print money”.

"Now [Eugene's] creators, whatever their initial motivations, have chosen to celebrate their victory by revealing themselves as masterminds and leveraging the attention they have earned for more attention still, plus some cash," said the Washington Post.

Others have made the project a lightning rod for wider problems of the internet. Many of those who engage with Eugene’s account appear to be school age – a peak occurs between 3pm and 4pm, when children have finished school. The egg has also enjoyed its breakthrough moment amid rising concern about the impact of social media on young people.

Last week, Instagram boss Adam Moseri acknowledged the company's responsibilities to its users. Addressing the accessibility of images of self-harm on the platform – an issue that has been in the spotlight after the suicide of the 14-year-old British girl Molly Russell – he said: "We are not where we need to be on self-harm and suicide, and we need to do more to protect the most vulnerable… We will get better and we are committed to finding and removing this content at scale."

The UK government now faces calls to enact a duty of care obligation for social media companies to their users. “We were under-focused on the risks of connecting so many people,” Mr Moseri told one newspaper interviewer.

And Instagram's problems are not just confined to its effects on vulnerable young people. The sentencing of the organiser of the notorious Fyre festival – dubbed The Greatest Party That Never Happened by a Netflix documentary – to six years in prison shows what happens when fraudsters harness its power.

Billy McFarland lured music lovers, influencers and celebrities to sign up for an event in the Bahamas that turned out to be nothing more than a sham. The promotional Instagram video was viewed 300 million times in the first 24 hours after its release.

Pledges of increased vigilance, such as that of Mr Moseri, are only being made now that politicians and officials are paying closer attention to the social media industry.

This increased governmental focus also only came after the issues became too big for the authorities to ignore.

Last week, Germany’s national competition regulator, the Federal Cartel Office, prohibited the combining of data collected by Facebook with information from other sources without prior user consent. This particularly applies to WhatsApp and Instagram, which are both owned by Facebook.

The Federal Cartel Office also noted that these three companies represented 95 per cent of Germany’s social media market. Germany has a particular historical antipathy to the gathering and exploitation of personal data without individual consent.

The anonymity offered by algorithms has formed the foundations for lucrative business models, but it appears that the world is finally getting wise to its broader implications. Companies such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp must make good on their promises of a makeover, or lose the monopoly they presently enjoy.