Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why Instagram Should Ditch The Algorithm

It has been a little over a year since Instagram began sorting its users' feeds by an algorithm. To say that users were unhappy about the introduction of algorithm sorted feeds would be an understatement. People complained on Twitter and even Instagram itself. Several articles and blog posts attacking Instagram's decision were published. As might be expected, there were even petitions to get Instagram to keep its traditional, reverse chronological feed. Unfortunately, despite widespread user outrage, Instagram went ahead with introducing the algorithm.

In that year very little has changed. People still hate the algorithm. In the past month alone I have read four articles (including ones on The Huffington Post and Mashable) attacking the algorithm. To this day people are still complaining about the algorithm on Twitter. I know from my fellow Instagram users that none of them like the algorithm. Instagram may have millions of users, but it would seem that many people are very unhappy with the app.

And there is very little reason they should be happy with the app. In my experience algorithms generally do not work. In theory algorithms on social media sites are supposed to show those posts in which one will most likely be interested, but in fact it seems as if it very rarely works out that way. In no particular order, the posts I am most likely to like on Instagram are cats, dogs, anything classic movie related, anything classic TV related, anything vintage, and classic pinups, among other things. Despite this, on a regular basis, Instagram's algorithm regularly places food porn towards the top of my feed. Here I want to stress that I have absolutely nothing against people who post food porn. It is a simple case that I prefer other things to photos of food.

While Instagram's algorithm regularly places things in which I am less interested at the top of my feed, it also often places things in which I am very interested lower in my feed. I have an acquaintance whom I met on Google+ and now follow on multiple social media sites, although Instagram has become the place where I interact with her the most. I like very nearly all of her posts and I regularly comment on them as well. Despite this it is not unusual for her posts to be placed lower in my feed, well below even, well, food porn.

Beyond Instagram's algorithm not sorting posts correctly for some of us, it also appears to have had a detrimental effect on many people's engagement. While I saw no real change in my numbers due to the algorithm, I have read many places where individuals saw dramatic drops in the amount of engagement that their posts were receiving. They received far fewer likes and comments on their posts than before the algorithm was instituted. In fact, it seems to be one of the most common complaints about the algorithm. Now given Instagram is a social media app, I would think they would want to do everything they could to encourage engagement. Apparently the algorithm discourages it.

Of course, with the introduction of the algorithm also came tricks to manipulate it, some more honest than others. Some have resorted to bots. Others have resorted to hashtags. Yet others have simply tried to improve the quality of their posts. One technique that has developed of late is the "Instagram pod". An Instagram pod is an invite-only, private group of Instagrammers. Each time one of them posts something, he or she will send an Instagram DM to the others in the pod. The others in the pod will then like the post and leave a genuine comment. Here I must point out that the various means of manipulating algorithms shows how algorithms are flawed. Ideally, an algorithm is supposed to show an individual what he or she likes first. Unfortunately, to do so, Instagram and other social media sites take into account how many total likes or comments a post has. Quite frankly, I think any algorithm worth its salt would only take into account what a user has liked in the past and not how many total likes and comments a particular post has. This is probably why people so often see photos on Instagram in which they are not the least bit interested well above photos in which they are very interested.

As to why the algorithm was ever instituted, Instagram, like most other social media sites, claimed it was for the users' benefit. When Instagram announced they would be introducing an algorithm sorted feed in March 2016, they wrote 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." The fact that most users abhor algorithms points to Instagram either not understanding what their users want or having an ulterior motive for introducing the algorithm. I suspect that ulterior motive is probably advertising. Quite simply, the algorithm gives Instagram much more control over the feed than they would have if it was in reverse-chronological order. Because of this they can make more space for ads. Indeed, the past year I think most Instagrammers have noticed a marked increase in advertising on the app.

While I don't think most people would begrudge Instagram making money, the problem I see is that the algorithm might well make ads less likely to be seen. Because of the algorithm I am trying to make sure that I don't miss any of my friends' posts. Because I am trying to make sure that I don't miss any of my friends' posts, I generally simply go right past any ads I might see unless it is from a company or artist I already follow. In other words, I think Instagram might well make more money through advertising if they had simply kept the feed in reverse chronological order.

Ultimately, I think if Instagram wants to keep its users happy it should do one of two things. The first is to ditch the algorithm entirely. I think they would see engagement go back up and they would even see users paying attention to the advertising on the site. Quite simply, it would be a good thing all around for everyone. The second is to follow the course set by Facebook and Twitter. Facebook has had its algorithm-based "Top Stories" feed for years, but learned long ago to give people the choice of a reverse-chronological, "Most Recent" feed as well. On Facebook, one never has to use the algorithm-sorted feed if  he or she doesn't want to. Twitter introduced an algorithm-sorted feed not that long before Instagram, but wisely gave people the choice of turning it off. Instagram could do the same. Again, it would make users happy. It would improve engagement. And Instagram might even see more advertising dollars. Regardless, I suspect the algorithm will hurt Instagram in the long run if they continue to use it. Unhappy users are users who are apt to leave, and if enough users leave, well, then Instagram won't be long for this world.

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