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?


  • Sara, once again I agree with so much of what you’ve said here! And hilariously, one of my photos is in your post, this has literally never happened to me before!

    In terms of creating content I do think the algorithm is encouraging people to create images to fit a certain mould (white space, flowers, coffee cups on bedsheets) rather than exploring their own creativity. A little bit like the quintessential blogger background with candles, peonies, marble. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things but it’s an aesthetic which repeats itself so much across social media now. It makes me a little sad that Instagram is now about conforming to type instead of encouraging more self-growth.

    I think I’ll continue to post what I like and what I like varies so often from day to day, it might be a landscape or a book I’ve read or it might be a flatlay containing a coffee cup, marble, a peony AND a candle all at once. My posts might not ever garner more than 50 likes but that’s okay because I know I’m pushing myself to improve my own photography, and I’m doing it for me and not necessarily for my followers πŸ™‚

  • Holly

    This was SO interested to read – and out of interest, I just went to look on the Explore tab and didn’t actually want to click onto any of the photos shown there!

    I completely agree that IG isn’t paying enough attention to people’s interests or what they want from the app. I’ve seen a rise in engagement (when I’ve been posting at optimal times) but I’ve been stuck on the same number for ages which is frustrating me no end!

  • Cariemay

    As someone who wasn’t very big before the changes I think I’ve probably benefitted from my pictures being seen by more people who don’t follow me – but the people who do and who are my friends don’t seem to see them as often, and there are a lot of people whose pictures I have to go to look for because they just don’t show up in my feed – I do miss the old days!

  • This was so interesting! Since the explore tab has changed I’ve found that a great deal of the images there are things I’ve looked at briefly but don’t have a particular interest in which is a really shame! πŸ™

    However, since the change I have noticed that my IG has benefited from more traffic and attention… but I’m not sure how! I’d much rather see difference than the same old images of rose gold accents and cactuses, though..

    Alice | Whiskey Jars Blog

  • I’ll be honest, the science scares me so I’ve just been carrying on regardless, pretending nothing’s changed.

    In reality *some* of my recent pictures might have been a bit …cliched (there *might* have been a faux hydrangea involved) and they’ve definitely seen some more interest which in turn has spiked the engagement on some of my other photos. I swear the hydrangea was for legitimate purposes, not just pandering to Insta algorithms. I suppose the crux of it is that my actual life isn’t heavy on the faux hydrangeas and I’d be pretty sad if my actual life wasn’t deemed interesting enough by Instagram. Not sad enough to repeat hydrangea but sad that Instagram don’t think we’re smart enough to be interested in real life things rather than a warped perfect little world.

    I’ve said hydrangea too many times. This was a really interesting read though, thank you.
    M x

    • hahaha! this entire comment made me laugh. I’m pretty sure we would be excellent friends!
      Is there a legitimate purpose for a faux hydrangea besides an instagram shot? ? I suppose on some level, IG has always been about the ‘edited highlights’ and nobody has shown their full normal life in all it’s dirty-laundry, cat-sick glory. But yes, it would be sad if that became the norm – and I think it’s up to us all to not fall into that trap and keep on ‘grammin’!

      & you know why the science is scary? because it’s not science at all, it is MATHS. A weapon of math destruction!

  • Hardy and Hay

    I love to read whatever you write about Instagram, Sara. No-one else holds my attention about the ins and outs of one little platform like you do! And yep – I’ve noticed it, and I curse the times I’ve liked a clickbaity photo as now I feel like I’ve trapped myself in a web of that kind of thing. It’s making me more deliberate and cautious about liking things, but also making me dig a bit deeper into feeds (which perhaps isn’t a bad thing?).

    In terms of how it’s made me change what I post, like Michelle below, I keep my head down and just keep posting. But, I’ve started doing a colour-graduated feed rather than focusing on a particular type of content, composition or editing style, which I’ve found is really freeing and SO much fun! (If you’re interested in seeing – which is presumptuous of me to assume/hope you would be – my username is @hardyandhay).

    Could you maybe develop us a new app that’s like the old Instagram, Sara? We’d all sign up… ;)!
    Flora x

  • A really interesting post – thanks Sara.

    The drop in engagement since the changes came into effect has been galling – photos that I’m really proud of have had very little response, and it feels like a huge step backwards after all the effort I’ve put into building up my Instagram account. I’m trying to resist temptation to change my images just to attract more attention though – I’d much rather stay true to my style, which is more muted. After all, Instagram would become a very boring place if we all posted the same stuff!

    It will be interesting to see whether the Explore feature changes over time, and whether things iron themselves out a little bit. x

    • Hey Abi! On that note, isn’t it weird when we both post exactly the same food photo for our blog collaboration and the interaction is often worlds apart. I still can’t fathom why that is??

      • The algorithm certainly doesn’t seem to like me very much at the moment, that’s for sure. It’s hugely disheartening. But your feed is amazing and rightly deserves all the engagement it gets πŸ˜‰ xx

  • I used to be incredibly frustrated and fed up with the situation; this happened with Facebook and I can’t help but feel Instagram will go exactly the same way. The introduction of business accounts only indicates paid-for promotion will be required in order to get posts actually seen by an audience who have already opted in.

    I’m trying really hard to completely ignore algorithm changes and continue to share what I want, when I want – that goes for my personal account and my business one; and continuing to try new social media as and when they emerge. Being an early adopter is really important.

    We can all discuss how best to tackle the changes; we just have to keep doing what we do and make use of each platform the best we can.

  • Very interesting POV. I never use the Explore feature (I’m I the only one?), I just checked it and was surprised with the images displayed, absolutely none of them would get a like from me much less would I click on them, they’re almost the antithesis of what I like to see on my feed, such a shame.

  • This is so interesting! You’re such an instagram wizard! I’m so sad about all the insta changes. Instagram used to be my favourite place and (without sounding melodramatic) it’s ruined for me. My feed is boring, always showing the same images and the same accounts. I still go to specific feeds but I follow hundreds of people, the majority of whom I never see. My explore page is just as disappointing. *sigh* I want the old days back.

  • Kate X Design

    Ack! You helped the penny drop in terms of why my explore page is so dismal. I’m clicking on all the wrong things! Not liking, just clicking like you said. I’ll just want to get a better look at something, or think “Good Lord is that really….” and then I’ve gone and clicked on it. Must do better to help save Instagram. πŸ™‚

  • Julia Williams

    Definitely have felt pressure to change. But then also feel defiant. Great post Sara, lots of food for thought x

  • Kellie Hill

    Oh this is superb. most interesting thing i will read all day. I have to admit, I look at the people I follow usually and don’t even look at the explore. Going to press more likes on the things i want to see

  • I’ve not seen any change really, I’ve stopped using hashtags so much, sometimes not using them at all, and that’s not made an impact either.

    I’ve heard people talking who have been really affected by it in terms of engagement, so much so they actively seek an Insta alternative.

    I’ve now made a list on a sticky note on my macbook desktop of the links of all the people I miss seeing in my feed. It’s slowed down how I use it that’s for sure, which might not be a bad thing!

  • Ooo and like Maria below, I never used the Explore feed before, it’s my home feed that’s the big let down. It shows me photos from 13 hours ago randomly, not the actual feed πŸ™

  • I hate what is happening on instagram! I don’t like how my feed is not in chronological order, and I don’t feel instagram understands what I want to see and what type of pictures I like best at all. I barely ever look at explore. However, what you say explains why the likes have become so strangely up and down on my photos lately. Thanks for this post! xxx

  • So I finished reading your post just now, started yesterday while in the car… I knew it was going to be good even before reading it completely and shared it. Oh boy. I was right!

    I’m one of those people considering changing what I post. I’ve tried creating some of those clickbaite images -or as I mentioned, I call them ‘honey’ to make myself feel better (lol)- but I hate the feeling… And in a sense made it worst because I can emotionally feel the drop on likes between those posts and my regular ones. Funny enough, over my regular posts the engagement has grown although the likes drop. – So what to do now? The question with the never ending answers… so after WAY too much unhealthy thinking and tiring monologues about IG rubbish with my husband -haha! yikes!- I think it’s best if we become practical *Sighs*. If we ask ourselves, what is our purpose to be on IG? It’s all about becoming intentional to me, like in work and other aspects of our lives. Until recently I’ve had IG as a hobby but I think is best if I stop using it that way. Right now I’m working on opening my lil’ Online Design Shop and I’ll use IG to support that purpose by creating a themed gallery and putting all my knowledge as the publicist/marketer/Designer I am. See it as work. I didn’t went to college and got a Masters Degree for nothing… AND I’ll go somewhere else to share β€˜my hobby’ photos… as a marketer you have to do what you have to do. Huh. – Thank you darling Sara, you truly have a way with words and please know they are always appreciated ;)x

  • Panorama Road

    Really interesting. I always click on the arty photos – mine are a lot more colourful but my account isn’t growing and I feel maybe I should become more coffee/flowers based to succeed – or maybe I’m just getting the hashtags wrong. Either way, as a complete newbie am finding it VERY hard to attract new followers…

  • Personally, the way instagram has evolved recently has kinda made me loose interest… if instagramming now means I need a business plan, or for me to become an expert at marketing/advertising, it is way too much trouble for a hobby! In the past years it had already started to loose most of it’s spontaneity and -dare i say it – authenticity, now it feels really calculated and contrived. It has become like many blogs: a professional, money-making tool. And that’s fine, I don’t judge, it is what it is, and I might use my account to that end some day! But for now, as it is only a hobby, I’ve decided to stop caring about likes and engagement and growing my account. I will not let it pressure me into changing what I post just for the sake of insta-fame, because that would be dishonest – and way too much work! I’ll still post pretty pictures, that are somewhat color-coordinated (because I’m an aesthetic control freak), and sort of keep it interesting… and come what may! Finding perfect hashtags and peak posting time is just not worth my while, and I don’t even want to understand the way the algorithm works… Funnily enough, with this new version I get a little bit more engagement on some pictures, over a longer period of time. It’s nice of course, and I welcome it when it happens, but I’m not going to try and figure out why and how to expand the phenomenon πŸ™‚ And I’ll keep enjoying looking at all the beautiful stuff in my feed (pro or not, spontaneous or not), in whatever order it come! So what I mean is, I understand why people who use insta “professionally” would be annoyed, but for the rest… it just feels a teeny little bit trivial and vain… Again, I’m not judging, I’m just trying to get some perspective on this matter! (On a side-note, for a more personal outlet that allows for more freedom and diverse content, I use tumblr. Almost no engagement at all, but I like it anyway! Also, it just occured to me that VSCO grid would be a good alternative to insta, wouldn’t it? Less popularity-oriented, with a very clean, simple design… I’ve neglected mine recently but I think I’ll update it now!) (And that’s the end of my rant)

    • :: danielle ::

      Love your comment Marie.

    • This is brilliantly put.
      When I mentor people I always say, what matters most? Your business or your authenticity? Bexause on IG right now, you can only prioritise one.
      If you don’t need it, this is definitely all first world problem shit. Who cares about algorithms and likes and explore pages? But of course a lot of people – makers, crafters, creatives – relied on that previous traffic to keep their businesses successful. They’re wondering what has changed and a frightening number of people are wondering if they’ve lost their creativity or talent – which perhaps just goes to show how fragile our self belief tends to be.
      So I hope you can understand that j write these posts for those people – people who it does matter to, and for good reasons. Instagram is a community, a real place with real people, and so people get as hurt and nervous about changes there as they would to a remodelling & change of ownership of the local cafe and park πŸ™‚ x

      • Ps I tried but got so confused with VSCO grid. How do you find other people to follow? It’s updated since then a lot tho, so perhaps so need to give it another look

      • Of course I understand that, and absolutely respect it. I admire you for figuring all these instagram dynamics out! I actually find them fascinating from a sociological point of view. And like I said, I might need your advice so I will keep reading and loving what you do πŸ™‚ when I say it can be vain, I’m really just talking about myself. At some point I was a bit obsessed with likes and follows, because it flattered my ego. So I had to check myself πŸ˜‰ And yes it is human nature to hate change at first! Anyway, this is only the humble opinion of a newly humble instagrammer… As for VSCO grid, I’ll go into it and report back!

    • Some great points! I too have a neglected VSCO grid πŸ™‚

  • Janice Issitt

    I totally agree with Abi, it’s demoralising when I put in so much effort. I am getting followed and unfollowed by totally inappropriate people and am stuck on my followers number like never before. This is such an important tool for my work too, it’s depressing.

  • Hannah Straughan

    Ooh I love your insider Instagram posts Sara! I also wonder if the new algorithm has encouraged a ‘mass unfollow’ – people whittling down their following to a minimum in a bid to have a bit more control over their home feed – what do you think? I’ve noticed a lot more unfollows, which leaves my following static for a few days at a time and is really disheartening..

    • :: danielle ::

      I have been unfollowing accounts that aren’t super inspiring or interacting with me. I’m also cutting down the people from my following list -> meaning having fewer people follow me. Trying to regain some control over what pops up in my IG feed and who sees my posts. The algorithm is definitely not smart.

  • I am bamboozled by the whole thing, I was definitely noticing the Explore page honing into what I was interacting with but never considered for a second it was just what I was clicking on. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but weirdly, my account has only been exploding more and more since everything changed. I would say the number of followers don’t matter as much anymore, my engagement is through the roof and on par with bigger accounts. Whether this is down to the Explore page, I don’t know. I’ve got to the point where I don’t want to get sucked into the game because it’s clouding my creativity and I want to stay true to a photography style that I love. I know some photos won’t get the same amount as likes as others, but it’s like you said – keeping the balance is good if you want to grow your account. God, we need some sort of Instagram therapy group don’t we!! Xx

  • Interesting post to read Sara! There’s times when the Explore page does show posts based on what I am interested in and I’ve found some really great accounts to follow. But then on many occasions I have flicked through Explore and it’s full of some really disturbing and inappropriate posts and I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. I’m just hoping Instagram realises this and makes a change because it can be a really good feature for finding new accounts to follow. Great post πŸ™‚


    • Ah, the disturbing and inappropriate gallery days! What causes that? My best guess is people hijacking hashtags, which is perhaps a clue as to how IG finds the posts to promote on Explore…
      for a while it was brilliant! Post algorithm it seems to be less so, but then way back when it was always full of pouting selfies no matter heat you did, so no doubt it will continue to evolve and (hopefully) improve! x

  • :: danielle ::

    The algorithm will change again. IG will continue to change. Do what you love and don’t become the common denominator.

  • Anita Ellingsen

    First of all – if your main issue of posting on ig is to get likes & followers, this would be interesting of course. And you are writing brilliantly on the topic. Faux hydrangeas? I feel a bit hit here cause my pic is in your example…. ?Mine are perfectly real, in a pot in the garden where I sometimes enjoy a cup of coffee… so nothing faux about it actually… I am only amused about ig cause I love the art of photography and the inspiration a pic gives even if it is a fixed one or of a Perfectly bombed living room or what ever…. I really don’t care about algorithme ?

    • Wait, no! The faux hydrangeas was in response to a commenter that said she had used a faux hyrangea for a picture and was laughing at herself about it – that’s all! Definitely not a hit on anyone. My explore page isn’t really an example of what I’m talking about, but was more just posted a) to show what the page looks like and b) Bexause a blog post always feels a bit empty and ‘blind’ without pictures, I think. Definitely not a critique of the pictures there – & yours and your hydrangeas are *heavenly* btw! xx

  • Anita Ellingsen

    ….and why on earth should I let anyone else tell me what to post in my gallery? I am not an artist, but I have integrety and a arty soul, so come on!!! Be authentic, be you.

    • Sorry, what do you mean? Have some people been asked to post different things?

  • Pingback: Show & Tell: August in photos -

  • I’m not using Instagram in a business capacity currently but I got sucked into reading this article out of pure curiosity and it made me think about this phenomenon more widely in the online community particularly with regard to written content. As you alluded to with your comments on the BBC, I’m similarly getting frustrated with the amygdala pleasing tendency creeping into all kinds of written content from clickbait titles warning readers of the horrifying mistakes they might be unwillingly making, to lists designed to be scanned and digested in a matter of seconds. Having said that I really loved reading this article, it was beautifully written, thought provoking and you seriously know your stuff when it comes to Instagram! I’d love to hear more from you about how you personally negotiate staying authentic and challenging yourself creatively whilst also giving your work the best chance of success.

  • Really interesting post Sara (by the way, when I clicked on the link to it in Bloglovin – it said page not found; I then went to your homepage and couldn’t see it – found it today via the link in your hashtag email).
    I never look at Explore! Fascinated by the impact it’s having – does everyone else routinely look at this??? I find it hard enough to keep up with my feed as it is. I tend to find new accounts by browsing hashtags or clicking on someone who leaves an interesting comment on another post… My follower numbers have been static/dropping slightly for a long time now and I guess overall number of likes are down too (but I figured that was down to my change of focus). But I had words with myself ages ago and agreed to keep posting what I love and curating my gallery however makes me happy. I can see how frustrating it must be for small businesses to get exposure, though. But isn’t it down to us to hashtag appropriately and browse that way, and leave thoughtful comments and engage as much as we can, and take part in challenges etc? I’m sure your hashtag newsletter has an impact! Anyway, thank you for sharing your insights – I always find your posts fascinating (even when I don’t comment!) xxx

  • The explore page has become a lot more boring or irrelevant in my opinion. Even clicking some hashtags leads you to the same, rather beautiful but ultimately slightly cliched formats – and the groups of hashtags they recommend are the same. I’ve just received your hashtag recommendations and they’ve been more rewarding.
    I resent that I no longer see some accounts that I follow – I suddenly remember someone and go and seek them out.
    There was an excellent article recently about the algorithms controlling everything we see to give us what we like – so we never encounter people who think differently from us. I know that I didn’t see anything on my social channels that was pro Brexit in the run up. Who were all these people? Obviously not people like me. It leads to silos of thinking creatively and ideologically – and can make us less tolerant or adventurous. Sorry – went off on a curve ball there! Thanks for sharing this info.

  • great post Sara, and so much food for thought! I was so befuddled/bemused/demoralised the other day when an inane flat white pic I posted got my highest ever number of likes but now I understand why πŸ˜‰

  • Great blog post and great comments! I hate the idea of being part of another one of FB’s emotional and psychological experiments – but love the insta community.

    I just post what I want, when I want. Dean laughs at my 1 am just before sleep posts. But if I feel compelled – I just put a picture up πŸ™‚

  • I use instagram in a personal capacity and I’m frustrated by the algorithm because I’m not seeing the photos I chose to see when I decided to follow someone. And that infuriates me!