Instagram & algorithms

instagram & algorithms

This morning brought the news that like Facebook and Twitter before them, Instagram are going to start organising user’s home feeds using algorithms instead of their current chronological display. Naturally, there’s a lot of concern and confusion, so below are some initial thoughts, and answers to some of the questions I’m hearing asked.

What does this actually mean?

Instagram will be rearranging the order that posts from accounts you follow appear in your newsfeed, based on your regular habits and interactions. So far they’re saying that all posts will still be in your feed, just organised differently. 
This won’t affect how your individual grid is displayed when people visit your profile page – just when  (and perhaps if) your followers get shown your images on their home feed.
The specifics of the algorithm are so far unknown, but it won’t be as simple as just highlighting the most popular posts first. It’s likely to be an individualised thing based on which images you frequently engage with, which accounts you spend the most time on and how posts are performing relative to their creator’s usual statistics (‘interestingness’).

Why are they doing this?

The official explanation is to improve user experience – IG state that “people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds” due to difference in posting habits and time zones. This is something we’ve known of a long time, and is why many users chose to optimise their shares or use apps like Latergramme to post at key times.

In actuality, it’s likely that this is a key step on their path to further monetising the platform by taking control of what people see and when. Realistically, people will still miss 70% of their newsfeed – it’s just that Instagram will now control what 30% they see. Once Instagram have full control of this, they can begin to introduce fee-based promotion for posts, similar to what we’ve seen with their (evil) sister company, Facebook. Instead of users coming to people working on creating a great Instagram & growth, they can pay directly to Instagram to promote their posts & whatever they’re selling.
So basically, the short answer here is $$$.

How does this affect me as a viewer?

As a casual user, it might be quite nice. If you’re logging in every few days this will benefit you by showing you the best content you’ve missed.

As a frequent user, it’s a little more murky. Many of us enjoy the chronological aspect to sharing: I like seeing everyone’s breakfast while I’m having mine; I love the surprise of nighttime in Japan when it’s sunny outside my window. 

Depending on how monetisation is handled, there is a danger over time of a decline in quality of the stuff being shared. If businesses can simply pay to promote their images, the need to create beautiful engaging content falls away. We saw something similar with the introduction of Instagram ads: while initially they were high quality and visually-friendly, as the program has become more mainstream the majority have turned to cack.

How does this affect me as a poster?

Essentially you’ll have a lot less control over who sees your posts and when. Once people get familiar with how the algorithm works we might find various ways to use it more to our advantage – a little like optimising for SEO – but it’s unlikely to be as effective as current optimisation options.

If you currently rely on time-optimisation quite a lot to reach your audience, this might mean reduced engagement. On the other hand, if you’re someone who doesn’t optimise for time and posts great content, it’s possible you might see an increase in people interacting with your shares.

Can I opt out? 

We don’t know yet. It’s likely that if an opt-out is available, the algorithm feed will still be the default. You might get to choose how your homefeed looks, but not how you appear to your followers. 

If an opt-out isn’t available, you may still be able to use a third party app like Iconosquare to view a chronological timeline. It’s not entirely clear yet, as the news is so fresh and nothing has actually been implemented yet.

What can I do?

As a viewer:

  • Put your favourite accounts on notification alerts – in the Instagram app, go to the user’s profile page, tap the three dots in the top right corner and select ‘Turn on Post Notifications‘. 

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  • Review who you follow. The more accounts you follow, the more jumbled your newsfeed can be.
  • Engage. Comment on your favourite posts; regularly like the content that appeals to you. Show the algorithm exactly what you like.

As a poster:

  • Ask your followers to put you on notification for a chronological alert whenever you post. 
  • Post your best content. I’ve said this plenty before, but these changes will make it even more important to share beautiful, attention-grabbing, engaging images.
  • Reply to your comments. Says me, I know – sometimes it’s an impossible task – but answering comments builds relationships, brings more attention to your feed, lets users when know you’re online, and boosts the level of attention the current algorithm pays to your post. 
  • Engage. Make sure you’re liking back with your loyal followers, leaving comments on other people’s posts and sharing the love. 
  • If you have a regular posting schedule, consider mentioning this in your bio – e.g. ‘new posts every morning before the school run!’ – so your followers know when to check in.
  • Keep sticking to the tips I shared in The Instaretreat. Great content is your best weapon against any changes!
  • Share your posts elsewhere. Admittedly, pretty much the only place left with chronological sharing as a default is now Snapchat, but sharing your posts with a link across your other social platforms increases the chance of your followers seeing it somewhere, at least.

If you don’t like it: Instagram are promising to take user feedback into account, so give it! You could try contacting the support team to share your opinions, though I’m always dubious that this will reach the right people’s desks. Be creative about sharing your dissent – write on your blog, rant on twitter, talk to your followers about it on your Instagram posts. I’m toying with a little hashtag project too – #chronologyfirst, perhaps? ?
There’s a petition doing the rounds too – unlikely to be as persuasive as advertising $, but worth a try all the same.!

is this the beginning of the end?

Of the world? No. Of Instagram? Prrrooobably not. It’s worth remembering that the team at Instagram love it almost as much as we do, and most of them are regular users and posters themselves. They’ve been really keen to learn from the mistakes made on Facebook and protect Instagram from the same fate – hence initiatives like #communityfirst to support all the creativity and love they know they have in this little app. 
I have faith in the community – we’re strong, we’re creative and we’re motivated by our love of sharing and beautiful images above all else. If Instagram ceases to be the place to do that, no doubt something else will rise up for us to jump ship to. It’s early days, and there’s no point despairing until we see the true impact these changes will have. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

Thoughts? More questions? Stuff I’ve missed? Leave me a comment below – I’ll keep updating this post as more info breaks and as things occur to me! x