how the clickbait algorithm is choking instagram

flowers in teapot

Have you noticed a shift in Instagram lately? Since the latest round of updates, most people have: their posts attract fewer likes, the content they see on their home feed is less varied.
Occasionally, and seemingly inexplicably, a post will garner unusual attention. It attracts likes at a remarkable rate, and you see your followings take a leap. What is going on?

let’s explore

A while ago, Instagram phased out their Suggested User feature and made Explore the primary discovery tool again. Explore, in a nutshell, is a personalised page of suggested posts from accounts you don’t follow. It’s an algorithm-based selection based on a heap of intricate variables, and though it isn’t always brilliantly accurate, in and of itself it’s no bad thing.
The problem is actually us.

It seems that most photos correctly tagged and with initial likes will be rolled out to some user’s explore pages. The attention it receives from those users then determines how much further is shown – get lots of clicks, and your post will be shared to a much wider audience. I say clicks, because I think that’s the main metric they’re using here – not likes or comments, but the number of clicks. It’s similar to what Flickr called interestingness – what ratio of people shown a thumbnail of the picture actually clicked on it? And this is where we hit a problem.

reactionary clicks

We don’t always click on the pictures we want to see.
That sounds stupid, I know – but consider how our minds work. To steal from Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats:

“Picture this,” said Sid. “You’re walking down a dark hallway, and a figure jumps out at you, and you scream and jump back and all of a sudden you realise it’s your wife. That’s not two pieces of information,” he said. “It’s the same piece of information being processed simultaneously by two different parts of the brain. The part where the judgement is takes three or four seconds. But the part that’s reactionary – the amygdala – just takes a split second.”

How long do you spend deciding what to click on the explore page? Less than four seconds?

Instagram is unwittingly testing something psychologists have studied for years: what types of images draw our immediate attention. If success on Explore page tells us anything, then it is often images with lots of white space, rainbow colours, florals, nice houses and babies. The Cath Kidston of the photography world, perhaps. Visually striking, relatable, pleasing. 
There’s also an advantage in any photo with fine details – handwriting, signage, anything too small to see on the thumbnail – as people click to fulfil their curiousity.

I say all of this as someone who posts these types of pictures. I do so a little more often these days, in fact, because it keeps my account growing and active. I also follow a lot of people who do these sorts of photos brilliantly, honestly, authentically – and I truly believe they are an art in themselves. I am not denigrating them, at all.

But what about the other stuff? What about the photos that take a little longer to digest and consider? What about the photos of ugly things, that are somehow mysteriously beautiful? What about the stuff our judgement likes, but our amygdala doesn’t?
You can test this yourself: watch what pictures you go to tap on the Explore grid. Are they the type of picture you always want to look at? Compare your ‘mindless’ clicks with your more considered ones.

bad news?

Is there anything wrong with all this? Well on the one hand, no. People are clicking on what they like, which in turn rewards these photographers. It’s reasonable to assume that this will encourage more users to create the sort of content that attracts clicks, which for Instagram is a healthy thing.

But on the other hand, it’s stifling for variety, creativity, new ideas. It means people who don’t post this stuff are finding it really hard to grow, or reach the engagement they enjoyed before. Engagement that came from their followers simply being able to see their posts, when they posted – a pretty democratic measure of a photo’s worth, imo.

It means that people are creating poor knock-offs of the original images, creating a mass of bland, mediocre content just to get a foot in the door.

tinfoil hats

Ultimately, Instagram taking control of the Explore page gives a less honest barometer of people’s tastes. By steering people in large numbers to particular pictures – whether by my above theory or simply vast Explore exposure – they are now able to define the trends on the platform, instead of the userbase.

At the risk of sounding a bit tinfoil-hattish, I see this loss as a significant one: the wonderful thing about social media was how it took this power away from the marketeers and big corporate business. The power dynamic had shifted, and we were able to like what we liked, regardless of what the magazines said.

With IG taking back the reigns, it seems this era is passing.
You can see it elsewhere, too – in the reputable newspapers who have disproportionate number of sex-heavy headlines online; in the BBC’s newfound interest in bikinis, in the clickbait titles to articles on twitter. Clicks are currency, and businesses need to push their users to do more & more of it. Instagram isn’t alone – it’s just one of the first instances where we can feel its impact directly.

Algorithms are clunky, statistically noisy things. They can’t get it right all of the time, and for now, the system running behind the scenes on IG doesn’t seem to be capturing the full scale of people’s interests. I’m hopeful this will change & improve, both for the sake of the community, and for the future talented photographers who are looking for a break.
 If Paul Horst signed up tomorrow, I’m not sure he’d manage to attract many followers. He didn’t shoot enough clickbaity flowers.

What are your thoughts on the algorithm’s impact on variety and creativity on Instagram? Have you seen a difference, or felt pressure to change what you post?