Like Facebook, Instagram Is About to Go—Gasp—Algorithmic
If you’re anything like me, you follow a whole lot of people on Instagram. (Maybe even a few too many—you’ve got over 400 million people to choose from.) You likely follow your friends, some family, a few phenomenal photographers (ahem, HONY), lots of dogs/foodies/world travelers, and maybe a brand or two you like (maybe!). And yet your Instagram is really about you—it reflects your world and what you want to see. Sure, its an idealistic, hyper-curated world, but still it’s a visual feed for you and only you.
Now Instagram, wants to make your world even more customized for you and your (literal) likes, by organizing your feed in such a way that it shows you what it thinks you want to see first. In other words, the Facebook-owned company is going algorithmic.
“You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70-percent of their feeds,” the company said in a blog post, explaining this shift. “As Instagram has grown, it’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.”
To solve that problem, Instagram says that it will be reordering your feed to show you “the moments we believe you will care about the most” based on what the company expects your level of interest will be, the timeliness of the post, and your relationship with the person. Posts will all still be there, the company says, but they’ll no longer be displayed chronologically as they have been until now.
“If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in,” Instagram explains. “And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.”
Facebook Knows Best
Reports indicate that last year Instagram’s interaction rate was down nearly 40 percent, so this action might be a response to that. While Instagram hasn’t shared a whole lot of details on how exactly it will make this shift, it won’t have to look very far for skilled engineers who can help figure out the best way to do this. Facebook has an algorithmic News Feed, meaning what you see is based upon what Facebook thinks you want to see based on a myriad of data points such as what you like (or Love or Wow or Sad or Angry or Haha), comment on, and scroll quickly past (or stop and watch for a while).
Like with Facebook, Instagram appears to want to keep you interested as long as it can (so, yes, it can serve you up ads). To do so, the company has likely determined that showing you what it thinks you care about most (based on your past interactions with the app) will keep you around longer in the same vein of Facebook.
Brian Blau, research vice president of consumer technology at Gartner, says that a reverse-chronological feed (i.e. what exists now) may be great for you if all your friends have really exciting videos and photos. “But that’s most likely not the case. You may have some friends who are prolific, some friends you may only want to hear from once in a while, some you want to hear from all the time,” Blau says. Facebook knows this, and it knows how to help. “They have a lot of great research on what keeps people engaged.”1
Instagram also isn’t just looking out for you—it’s also looking out for its advertisers. Blau says that, at least for Facebook itself, the algorithmic News Feed has served both the company, its users, and its advertisers. “Understanding your available inventory, how engaged your users are, what the proclivity is to purchase based on exposure—all of these things are really important to the ad business,” Blau says of Facebook. “Without that algorithm, they’d have a lot less control. With the algorithm, they can fine tune things.”
Nonetheless, this will be a pretty drastic shift for Instagrammers. Kind of like Twitter, Instagram still feels simple. It feels like the kind of place you can control: you follow someone, their posts show up when they post them. That kind of control is different from Facebook where it’s the company that controls what you see. This kind of immediacy has also created special Instagram norms and habits (at least in my corner of Instagram), where people share photos when they take them or mark them in some way like on Throwback Thursdays (#tbt).
Don’t freak out just yet—Instagram didn’t say exactly when these changes will roll out to your feed, but you’ll probably start to see photos and videos shift out of order in the coming months. Of course, as with anything online, many people are already freaking out. One commenter on Instagram’s blog post summed it up, “Ugh. More algorithmic news feeds. All I want to do is see everything I follow in time order. Is that really too much to ask?” Another begged: “Can you please, PLEASE not do this. Ot at least make it opt in?” Time will tell, commenter. Time will tell.
1UPDATE 8:00 PM ET 03/15/16: This story has been updated to add comments from Gartner’s Brian Blau.