Traditionally, we were trained to view social media posts in chronological order. Hitting “refresh feed” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would display the most recent content at the top, and the more you scrolled, the older the material would get. As our networks expand however, social media platforms are having to find ways of evolving in order to better deal with the growing surges of content being shared every minute.

Facebook began adapting its news feed toward an algorithm based on user popularity back in 2011. Earlier this year, Twitter also announced timeline changes aimed at helping users connect with the content that is most relevant to them. Last week, Instagram announced that it will be joining the club in a blog post entitled “See The Moments You Care About First”. They confirmed they are scrapping the chronological timeline in favour for a personalised algorithm model.

The switch means that instead of displaying the most recent content first, the platform will use its magical powers to predict:

  • The likelihood of users being interested in a post
  • The relationship between connected accounts
  • The timeliness of posts

The change comes after the company announced that the platform is becoming so popular that the average user misses around 70 percent of their feed. The brand’s Chief Executive and Co-founder, Kevin Systrom, said:

“this is about making sure that the 30 percent you do see is the best 30 percent possible”. via New York Times

And the crowd goes wild…

Following the announcement, the #RIPInstagram hashtag began to gather pace, but these type of changes are always met with… mixed emotion:

When Facebook began changing its timeline, users revolted accross the network by setting up groups along the theme of “Change Facebook back to normal!!

RIP Instagram - Change Facebook back to normal

Twitter’s recent changes have prompted a pretty intense backlash too: #RIPTwitter trended globally and is not really showing any signs of slowing down:

Instagram has promised to take time in rolling out these changes as well as paying attention to user feedback along the way. Mike Krieger, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, says these changes will therefore be less disruptive than those of other networks.

The price of free speech

The main benefit of social media is that it gives everyone a voice. Arguably, an algorithm becomes necessary to ensure that everyone is being heard, meaning people are being served content deemed most relevant to them.

A report by Quintly reveals that Instagram engagement is down 40% when compared with last year, and yet the number of posts-per-day is on the up. This does imply that users are seeing less content from their favourite accounts because it is being buried by the sheer volume of posts. Therefore, putting an algorithm in place that shows users more of what they want to see, could well result in better rates of interaction.

A frequently cited objection to the personalised algorithm is that users are worried they will miss out on content from accounts they don’t regularly engage with.

Also, if more engagement equates to a more favourable positioning on our timelines, then smaller accounts with smaller followings are likely to get lost altogether.  Users are obviously able to pick and choose the content  they deem most relevant by following, or indeed unfollowing particular accounts, but,in choosing to work against the algorithm in this way, people risk becoming disconnected from one another, and this is exactly what the social media industry is not about.