Recently, Instagram announced that it was testing an algorithmically organized feed on a small subset of its users, replacing its traditional chronological feed. This was met with the typical backlash from users, fearing the change would be forced upon them, and that it would irrevocably change their experience on Instagram. With any update like this, users will do one of two things, adapt or leave the platform. Instagram was quick to try and back away from the cliff by saying this change was just a test and did not necessarily mean this change would be permanently implemented. Don’t buy that though, this change is coming eventually.
Essentially, the algorithm organizes the order in which you see the posts in your feed based on what it thinks you’ll find most relevant. The relevancy scores are calculated based on a user’s past behavior within the platform.
Instagram’s reasoning for the change cites the increasing unmanageability of feeds as the platform grows and as people follow more and more other users. To illustrate their point, Instagram states that people miss 70% of their feeds. It’s fair to question that a bit, and indeed, if you look at estimates of the distribution of accounts, you’ll see that there is a bit of a U shape, meaning this change will ostensibly benefit the people on the right end of the spectrum, while potentially annoying the left end.
Here at Likeable Local, we have a new “theme” for every quarter. For this quarter, our theme is “Likeable Grows Up”. Any young startup tries, every day, to grow more and legitimize their business. For us, at this point, that means implementing more efficient processes and growing our team (we’re hiring!). For Instagram, the calculus is similar.
Instagram is also growing up, and that’s why this change was inevitable. Instagram, as you might know, is owned by Facebook. They have figured the best way to monetize Instagram is for it to follow the same model as it did when Facebook grew up. Facebook went through this exact change and the reason was to make it easier to not only organize the feed, but to also give Facebook a method to charge for certain guaranteed delivery.
The whole ads structure of Facebook is that for any given post on any given page, the post is only delivering to a small percentage of people who like your page. In order to raise the delivery of that post, there’s a structure in place to pay for that reach, which takes the form of a “Sponsored Post”. That’s social media code for an ad, even if the content of the ad isn’t what you might traditionally consider to be advertising.
It may sound cynical, but Instagram needed to somehow become more profitable eventually. It’s all part of the process of “growing up” for social media platforms. The model here is actually pretty simple, mass user acquisition based on the appeal of the platform, and then leveraging those users into real monetary value for the company down the line. For Instagram, “down the line” is coming up fast. The original appeal of the platform was the simple concept of square photos with easy to use filters, allowing people to share the moments of their life in a quirky, vaguely hipster way. (For those who really are curious as to the likely inspiration behind Instagram, check out more about the Rolleiflex. Part of the appeal of the filters originally was that they looked like photos your grandfather took. That was the camera he took it with.)
Now that phase one of Instagram was so wildly successful, it’s time for phase two, monetization. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To do this right, Instagram still has to maintain its original appeal, or risk alienating their user base and completely destroying that base’s value. The platform still needs to maintain and grow this base, and that means a careful balance of user and business needs. When Instagram got rid of the square photo requirement, it was embraced not only by advertisers, but also users who were tired of that quirk. Instagram is hoping it can present this update the same way.
Another thing Instagram is counting on is the fact that the platform has already cemented its importance, so it will continue to grow. As ubiquitous as Instagram may seem, it’s important to note that it’s actual market penetration is more like 63% among users under 35 and 37% for those over. For people who join Instagram after the algorithm is in place, they won’t even know what life was like before the change. For those who will be affected though, since they’re likelier to be the early adopter type, they will also more likely be able to adapt to the change.
If it’s truly important that you see certain people’s posts, much like on Facebook, there will be a way to manually construct your feed. For most people, the change will come and go and there’ll be a quick uproar and then anger will turn into acceptance. People will, for the most part, continue to use Instagram, and likely most of the particularly reactive users who will leave will eventually come back. For Instagram, the fact that there is an uproar is a good sign. The platform should be pleased that they have a large number of active users who are actually invested.
So to all Instagram users I say, it was inevitable, but don’t fret. You won’t even notice it after a month. And, in the long run, it’ll allow Instagram to continue to exist, mostly whole, but a little more grown up, as the social media network you knew from the start.
How do you think the platform's change is going to affect the way you use Instagram? Let us know in the comments below and don't forget to follow us on the 'Gram @LikeableLocal!