Ah the Instagram algorithm. Given the fact its TikTok counterpart and its hot mess distinctiveness is constantly talked-up as a game changer, it’s hard to believe that when Instagram changed its algorithm from chronological to controlled in 2016, the world melted down. In the intervening years we have grown used to the chaos, but influencers still talk about that golden age, the years BA (Before the Algorithm), when Instagram was growing. The immediacy of the feed, the way you could scroll down as if you were flipping through a photo album, the fact that you could actually reach the bottom of your feed, which seems like a revolutionary idea now. It meant that you could react to posts in what felt like real time and it was intimate. Influencers and creators built communities and thrived.
Then came 2016, and the algorithm. The news that Instagram would no longer be operating a chronological feed came as a shock to most – journalist Akilah Hughes summed it up with a tweet at the time: “My Instagram feed isn’t chronological anymore and I don’t really get the point of anything.” In a Guardian article about the change, it was reported that singer Ellie Goulding had sent panicked messages, urging her fans to turn on notifications so they wouldn’t miss a Goulding moment. As recently as June 2021, in a post on the Instagram website, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri was still defending the logic behind the algorithm writing, “When we first launched in 2010, Instagram was a single stream of photos in chronological order. But as more people joined and more was shared, it became impossible for most people to see everything, let alone all the posts they cared about. By 2016, people were missing 70% of all their posts in Feed, including almost half of posts from their close connections. So, we developed and introduced a Feed that ranked posts based on what you care about most.”
I am co-founder of a media startup called the The Midult and we have been at the mercy of Meta algorithm, where one week your reach is a million and the next it’s halved; where it says it is prioritising video but then, not so much. Over on Instagram there are frustrations – with posts appearing on people’s feeds days after we’ve uploaded them so content and comments are missed. And we are not alone. One significant influencer I talked to off the record exclaimed “they’re ditching the STUPID algorithm. Hallelujah! I’m still smarting from them focusing on Reels when last year we were told it was all about the IGTV and Lives.”
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For Mary Kate Trevaskis, co-founder of The Tape Agency, whose clients are a relevant roster of social stars from The Scummy Mummies to Deborah Frances-White, it is good news for all. Shesaid: “We are really happy to hear Instagram is going back to a chronological timeline. Seeing content in ‘order’ and authentically, rather than being beholden to an algorithm based on what Instagram wants you to see, feels like we are going back to the essence of what made Instagram compelling at its inception.” Crucially for brands, Trevaskis thinks that this is a positive for 2022. “For brand partners, we feel that this will make content more visible, make more sense for those seeing it and potentially garner better and more accurate engagement.”
For Natalie Lee, AKA Style Me Sunday on Instagram, it’s also an interesting move because the platform has felt stale and unilluminating. She told me, “Instagram going back to chronological order is a good thing because at the moment it feels like you’re in an echo chamber of the same things, it’s boring. It’s also really hard to get perspective on what’s happening in the wider context. We’re not seeing differing opinions anymore and that’s really not helpful. That was the main appeal for me in the beginning – I learnt so much. Hopefully it will help make it more enjoyable again.”
On Twitter there’s been almost constant carping about the Instagram algorithm since 2016 – take comedian Emily Heller last week: “Man Instagram used to be where I went to see what my friends were up to and look at art and instead Facebook is just turning it into an algorithm Tiktok Snapchat store that shows me strangers announcing news from two days ago and videos of people brushing wigs.”
Instagram has had a confusing couple of years. The platform reached the two billion user milestone in the autumn, according to insiders, but not without much hand-wringing about its identity, purpose and the menace of TikTok. The last month has seen Mosseri hauled into Congress with questions to answer about child protection online. And the year didn’t start well either – in January, Mosseri told a podcast about the Reels feature, saying “I’m not yet happy with it…And we have to be honest that TikTok is ahead.”
The threat of TikTok looms large at Instagram HQ. According to the findings of a survey by Forrester, 63% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 used TikTok on a weekly basis this year, compared with 57% for Instagram. In June, Mosseri announced Instagram was “no longer a photo-sharing app, or a square photo-sharing app.” He continued: “Let’s be honest, there’s some really serious competition right now. TikTok is huge, YouTube is even bigger, and there’s lots of other upstarts as well.”
But there’s been a sea change in his corner of Silicon Valley. Last week, Mosseri announced the company is testing out two versions of a chronological feed feature and that it’s “targeting early next year” for the release. Perhaps this is a response to another of Mosseri’s musings – that one of the things TikTok does most compellingly is break new talent. He told a Creator Q&A in the summer, “Instagram is much better at helping creators that have already made a name for themselves do more online. TikTok is better at identifying new and young talent and helping them break out in the first place. And we want to be really good at that. We have historically focused on that less, but I’m pushing my teams hard at getting better at doing well by the little guy.” In a social media world, which is very brand focused, a return to the more intimate chronological feed and better support for young, upcoming influencers could distract from the TikTokification of the world and give Instagram the refresh it needs.
Mosseri makes it clear the company isn’t abandoning its algorithmic feed completely, and that it would be more like Twitter where you can choose which version you’d like. “We’re not moving away from ranking altogether. We’re going to give people the option to go to a chronological version of feed,” he told the Senate. “But at a high level, we believe that ranking helps us connect people with the content that matters to them most.” He added later in a tweet, “It’s important to me that people have meaningful control over their experience, and I believe a place where you can see everything from the accounts you follow in chronological order is an important thing.” Hallelujah indeed.
By Emilie McMeekan, features director of CORQ.