You actually don't mind Instagram messing with your timeline

Apparently most people are OK with it, even if they say they're not.
Nicole Lee
N. Lee|08.08.17

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Nicole Lee
August 8th, 2017
In this article: facebook, gear, instagram, internet, twitter
Thomas White / Reuters
Thomas White / Reuters

Instagram has been enjoying a blockbuster of a year. It hit the 700-million-user mark in April, and last week the service celebrated the first anniversary of Stories -- the Snapchat clone that now has 250 million daily users. The amount of time people spend on Instagram has also gone up -- those 25 and older now use it an average of 24 minutes a day while those younger use it 32 minutes a day.

There are several reasons for this growth -- Stories and Live Video are two examples -- but there is one other contributing factor: Instagram's algorithmic feed, which made its debut a little more than a year ago. The problem is, like most algorithmic feeds, it is still highly unpopular with many users.

Instagram changed from a chronological feed to one based more on what it thinks you'll be interested in last June. According to Instagram, one reason for the change is that people tend to miss 70 percent of their feeds. But with a feed that takes your interests into account, Instagram says this will no longer be the case; you won't miss a video from your favorite band or photos from your best friend, even if they posted 12 hours ago. In other words, photos that are popular, or have more engagement than others, or were posted by people you like will likely surface to the top.

The initial backlash was fierce (and predictable), with even a few celebrities calling for Instagram to revert to a chronological feed. In the weeks prior to the change, several brands even took to Instagram and asked their followers to turn on push notifications so that they wouldn't get buried in the algorithmic pile. Kylie and Kendall Jenner joined the fray, imploring the service to not "fix something that isn't broken." But, of course, Instagram went ahead with the change anyway.

Instagram is just the latest social media service to switch from a chronological to an algorithm-based feed. Twitter introduced a milder version back in February 2016, with its "While you were away" tweets at the top of the timeline if you hadn't visited the site in awhile. That, too, was met with hostility when it was first announced: people used the #RIPTwitter hashtag to voice their displeasure. After all, some say that the whole point of Twitter is to catch up on news and current events -- surfacing hours-old tweets would seemed counter-intuitive.

That said, Twitter's algorithm is not like Instagram's. For one thing, if you're on Twitter throughout the day, you'll probably see the chronological feed most of the time anyway. The algorithmic feed is more for people who take extended Twitter breaks, and therefore have a greater need to catch up on what they've missed.

Another thing that sets Twitter apart from Instagram is that if you do want to see the chronological feed, you can just hit refresh on your browser or the app, and it instantly reverts anyway. Alternatively, you can just toggle off the "Show me the best tweets" option in the settings menu if you don't want to see it at all.

Some people on Twitter actually seem to like the algorithmic feed as it helps them catch up on what they've missed. Laurie Voss, a web developer and COO of NPM, a Javascript company in San Francisco, says that he appreciates the algorithmic feed because it helps him avoiding missing out on important news. Armando Kirwin, a VR director, says that he used to hate it, but now that he's not on Twitter as much, he finds it quite helpful.

In contrast, Instagram's algorithm is more akin to Facebook, which itself has had some form of an algorithmic News Feed since 2011. Like Instagram, Facebook essentially forces its algorithm upon you. You can select "Most Recent" instead of "Top Stories" in Facebook, but it ends up reverting back on subsequent visits. As a result, you get a feed that's almost never in chronological order -- a huge source of annoyance for a lot of users.

A quick look at Facebook's support forums show several open threads of people complaining about not being able to make Most Recent the default view. "No one wants Top Stories," says one user. Another criticized the top stories in Facebook's News Feed as "just random posts from several days ago that mean nothing." The only response users received was a boilerplate text that forwarded them to yet another feedback form.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, however, there's really no way to switch the Instagram feed to chronological at all. So you simply have to live with the annoyance of seeing old photos at the top of your feed. A quick search on Twitter will reveal plenty of people who dislike this, with comments ranging from "Why is my Instagram showing photos from four days ago" to "Instagram's algorithm makes no sense." A 22-year-old user by the name of Evie Young says she hates the way Instagram works now. "Must look like such a weirdo liking people's pics from three days ago," she tweeted.

"I really, really dislike Instagram's non-chronological algorithm," said Christina Bonnington, a freelance journalist in San Francisco. "I tend to see posts from the same five to ten people over and over again, and often the posts are days or even weeks old. On top of that, it'll show me posts meant to be seen in chronological order, out of order. So annoying."

Despite the hate, it seems that these algorithms actually work. An Instagram spokesperson said that since the service began ranking content, engagement has increased tremendously. People liked more, commented more and generally just interacted more with the app.

Indeed, according to Instagram, it's this algorithmic feed that's cited as a "significant contributor" to the site's current success. And though Twitter's user numbers remained stagnant in Q2 of this year, it stated that whatever increase it did have was driven in part by "better relevance" in the new timeline. A Twitter spokesperson told Engadget that only a small single-digit percentage of users actually turn the algorithm off. As for Facebook, you only need to look at its ever-climbing user numbers to see how the algorithm hasn't scared too many people away.

Ideally, users will get what they want: a chronological feed that floats the latest stories and posts to the top. But the truth is, algorithmic feeds ramp up engagement, increase views and are generally better for ad impressions. In other words, as much as people seem to hate social media's algorithms, they're here to stay.

Still, there are workarounds. On Twitter, you can just turn it off by unchecking "Show me the best tweets first" in settings. On Facebook, you can select "Most recent" instead of "Top stories," though you'll have to do this every time you login.

Instagram is probably the most annoying of the lot, as there's no such setting in the app. Even then though, a few Instagram bloggers have cobbled together a way to fight the algorithm with "pods," a group of people that agree to boost each other's photos with likes and comments so that their photos will surface to the top. Still, these pods are invite-only, and there's no confirmation that gaming the algorithm like this actually works. Besides, it still doesn't change the feed to chronological order, which is what some people want.

In the end, even if algorithmic feeds are the way forward, it would be nice if the social networks offered a switch to sort by chronological order as an option. If only a small percentage uses it, then that won't drastically change the overall trend of higher engagement. If a huge percentage does, however, then maybe that's a sign to rethink the whole thing altogether.

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