Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Why Instagram Should Keep a Chronological Feed

In March Instagram announced that they would start sorting photos in the app's feed by an algorithm. According to a statement on their blog, "To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most." In the blog they also said, "We’re going to take time to get this right and listen to your feedback along the way. You’ll see this new experience in the coming months." Reaction to Instagram's announcement was swift and immediate. Instagram users made their unhappiness at the announcement known via Twitter and even Instagram itself. A petition to “keep Instagram chronological" was even created on Change.Org. At the moment it has 335,954 signatures.

Fortunately for Instagram the uproar eventually quieted down. I am guessing that when Instagram said that they were "going to take time", people just stopped worrying about it. Unfortunately it seems Instagram's idea of "taking time" is only less than two months. Last week there were reports of individuals' feeds having been switched to the new algorithm. A search on Twitter for "Instagram feed" would bring up several tweets in which people expressed their disappointment, frustration, and even outright anger at having their feed changed. At the moment it is difficult to tell if Instagram is simply testing the new algorithm out on a few users or slowly rolling it out to all users. Either way people are not happy.

My own thought is that Instagram should not have even considered switching to sorting posts by algorithm to begin with. On their blog announcing the change Instagram claimed that "...people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds." I seriously doubt this myself. It might be true of people who follow literally thousands of people, but I know I have no problem whatsoever keeping up with what is on my feed. I simply scroll down to where I left off. I miss nothing. That seems to be true of my friends as well.

I cannot say the same if my Instagram feed was sorted by an algorithm. For years Facebook has sorted posts by algorithm on their Top Stories feed. Long ago I learned that if I only relied on Facebook's "Top Stories" feed I would miss several posts, even those by my closest friends. While it is not as inefficient as Facebook, Google+ also has an algorithm that sorts posts, even though they are still displayed in chronological order. There I will also occasionally miss posts, even by those by closest friends. If Instagram switches my feed to being sorted by an algorithm, then, I can only imagine that suddenly I will start missing several posts, even those by my closest friends.  In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if instead of seeing everything the way I do with my feed sorted chronologically, I will miss 70 percent of my feed if it is sorted by algorithm....

Indeed, I suspect missing posts by those closest to them is the reason why people absolutely, positively hate having their feeds sorted by algorithms. The howls of protest with which Instagram was met when they made their announcement is not the first time a social media site has met with resistance from its users regarding sorting feeds by an algorithm. In fact, even though Facebook insists on its Top Stories feed (sorted by an algorithm) being the default, Facebook users have always shown a marked preference for the Most Recent feed (sorted chronologically). To this day people still complain that they only want to see the Most Recent feed. A number of workarounds even exist online to set one's Facebook feed permanently to Most Recent. Indeed, every attempt Facebook has made to do away with the Most Recent feed has resulted in such outcry that they have had to restore it.

More recently Twitter introduced a feed sorted by an algorithm (the alleged "Best Tweets" feed). When Twitter made the initial announcement of a feed sorted by algorithm the outrage on the part of users was such that the hashtag #RIPTwitter began trending. It was perhaps because of the furore over the algorithm that when Twitter eventually introduced their feed sorted by an algorithm they made it an option that can be turned on or off in settings. I rather suspect that most users elected to turn it off.

Given the utter hatred most users have for feeds sorted by algorithms, I rather suspect that Instagram should follow Facebook and Twitter's leads and give users the choice of having their feeds sorted chronologically or by an algorithm. In fact, I think it might be best if Instagram followed Twitter's lead and made the feed sorted by an algorithm something that can be turned on or off in settings. I can guarantee most users would elect to turn it off.

If Instagram does not give users a way to keep their chronological feeds, I rather suspect it could be the death of the app. On social media site after social media site users have expressed not only a strong preference for chronologically sorted feeds, but a strong hatred for feeds sorted by an algorithm. If all Instagram offers users is a feed sorted by an algorithm, I don't think it would be inconceivable for users to start deserting the app in droves or, at the very least, to stop using it even if they don't uninstall it from their tablets or phones. Instagram might think they are improving users' experiences by sorting their feeds by algorithm, but I can guarantee users will disagree.

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