As winter cleared and the first notes of spring were heard, Instagram announced a little rebirth of its own with an algorithm update, and the social media giant’s community reacted with all the temperance and equanimity one expects from internet culture, which is to say, none at all. Accounts both large and small were quick to declare Instagram “dead” and “over,” while the tenor of comments ranged from blistering rage to paralyzing despair.
So what’s the switch that has everyone so unhappy?
Similar to the old Facebook format, Instagram presents posts in a linear, time-ordered fashion with the newest at the “top,” or what you see when you first open the app, and then back on “down” chronologically. It presents a simple, easy-to-follow format that allows users to keep track of what’s going on simply by going back in time. The only problem with this format, apparently, is that the now Facebook-owned Instagram asserts that users miss up to 70% of posts. (Which is ironic, given that the main complaint lodged at the new algorithm is that it will unfairly disadvantage and bury posts by smaller brands and niche-oriented accounts.)
Instagram will soon deliver posts to users in a curated format based on what it thinks you want to see. This mildly Orwellian approach will mirror the format Facebook has adopted which eschews chronology for perceived importance. The shift has many smaller, independent brands anxious since they rely on Instagram as a vital platform to reach audiences around the world. Who’s to say they won’t be shunted aside for a more prominent, corporate account, or for a paid advertising post? Do you follow a handful of news, environmental, or other socially-conscious accounts to stay current on the world and the changes affecting it? You may miss out on those now to receive a fast-food ad, or a political post paid for by a shadowy super PAC.
While Instagram and its parent Facebook have their own specific intentions in mind with the update, it’s still hard not to be a little concerned by them determining what you will and will not see. To be fair, the new algorithm is currently being beta-tested amongst a small group of users and won’t receive a wide rollout until sometime later this year. Given the uproar surrounding the change, Instagram may decide to allow users to switch between a chronological or curated feed, or offer some other options to address user concerns.
One current way to ensure you never miss a post is to turn on notifications for your favorite accounts. (Which became a meme, and then a counter meme for a few days at the end of March.) But who wants even more notifications on their lockscreen? Another idea is to do a little curating of your own to ensure that the algorithm will only shuffle the accounts you truly want to see. Social scientists have determined that 125 is about the limit of friends (or accounts) people can truly track and feel meaningfully engaged with on a social media platform, so perhaps some judicious spring cleaning is in order.
But what about those small businesses? Or social awareness accounts? How do they ensure that they’ll still be seen? At this point, unfortunately, it’s too early to tell. One suggestion, though, is to use Instagram to raise awareness for, and direct followers to, other touchpoints where the brand has more control. For instance, something as simple as an email newsletter, or another other social media account, such as Snapchat or Twitter, or perhaps a Pinterest page. As powerful a tool as Instagram is, it’s certainly not the only one out there, and every successful brand must stay nimble while keeping its story compelling and resonant, no matter what the platform.
Image via Flickr courtesy of Jens Karlsson at https://flic.kr/p/dkTZov