Instagram is changing its newsfeed.
In perhaps one of the most pat-on-the-head press releases ever put out on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Instagram announced plans to start ‘personalising’ the content its users see. With an algorithm.
According to the New York Times, who first reported the story, moving the platform away from its reverse chronological feed will mean that photos will be bumped to the top of your page based on your history of interactions with certain friends and accounts.
As the release tech-‘splained, “To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimising the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.”
No longer will you have to worry about missing that all-important photo of your cousin’s new puppy or that blogger’s avocado toast breakfast whilst sitting on a long-haul, wifi-free flight. Those photos will be at the top when you touch down.
Similarly, you won’t have to worry about drowning out your favourite accounts when you follow more users. The algorithm will provide a safety net for the photos that really matter to you – at least in theory.
It also means the photo-sharing app will look a lot more like the ever-popular Facebook, which purchased the company for $1bn in 2012.
As you can imagine, the news went down like boots tied to boulders. Especially when it came with the addition that advertisers will be exempt from the changes. And that it’s not just the people you interact with most that will be bumped up, but ‘most popular’ posts as well. This suggests if you follow any brands, celebrities or well-established bloggers, they too will receive space precedence over smaller accounts.
The algorithm thusly has many concerned and you have only to glance through news feeds to find posts like these:
The post from @dropandgivemenerdy conveys just one of the issues being raised by community users with small and micro-businesses. As a book blogger and cover designer, the account creator, Alexis Lampley, quit her full-time job in order to more fully commit to her startup business.
Lampley further explains her worries in the comments, saying “Instagram is the only place I am building this business, and this new algorithm base could destroy that. I’ll never be able to compete with companies who have a larger follower base if I never show up in my followers’ feeds.”
It’s a valid concern. For thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of Igers (Instagram users), their feed acts as the main marketing channel for their business.
And it’s been highly effective. Because of its image-focused nature, Instagram makes it simple for small businesses to define a brand, create relevant content, drive and build engagement, as well as establish a unique community. For fashion, fitness, and food brands, this has been highly successful too because it allows them to sell lifestyle choices in an authentic, immediate format. To illustrate, household names such as Joe Wicks, the online nutrition and fitness coach, began on the platform. And there are more business success stories emerging every day.
What will the new algorithm mean for such businesses and the entrepreneurs behind them? In all likelihood, it’ll make things harder. How they launch and drive sales will need a thorough rethink. Click-throughs from Instagram to product sites or retailers is essential for the business growth of these companies. Using concepts such as giveaways and competitions, they have been able to maximise their reach on the reverse chronological feed. The new system has the potential to scupper this if an account lacks high engagement or established popularity.
There’s an argument that says Instagram’s increasing popularity means the platform does need to change in order to stay relevant. With around 400 million users, so much content is now generated every minute that the average Iger misses around 70% of the photos in their feed. Even the really great ones with more likes than said average user might receive in a year.
Relevancy-optimisation, therefore, does make some sense.
However, the general opinion appears to be that this is in the best interest of the platform, not those that use it. It’s about monetising, about making Facebook’s purchase a fully viable business. Sure it goes against the Lean Startup model underpinning the current Instagram. Given that it’s still free, however, there’s a certain absurdity to thinking it could remain the same forever when there’s so much other competition out there.
At the end of the day, #RIPInstagram might be trending now but many had the same furious reaction when ads started showing too.
Almost every other week there seems to be a headline about one social media app or another making changes to its format or tweaking it’s products, adding and taking away like some small, indecisive child playing god with their Legos. In zero cases did these social edits receive overwhelming love and support from users. No one likes change – remember the Twitter favourite furore? – but give it a week and the sadface emojis and hashtag petitions vanish into the Ethernet.
The question is, will this be the case for Instagram?
It has already weathered three rounds of backlash from previous changes, so it seems likely. But when the platform’s most treasured asset appears in jeopardy – it’s simplicity – will users come round to the changes?
Will it help Instagram grow?
Might it do so at the expense of those content creators most passionate about the platform?
Time will tell.
Just not in reverse chronological order.
— Alex Hantson (@HantsonAlex) March 16, 2016