Instagram’s new algorithm is live: What does it mean for me?

Instagram new logo

Instagram have confirmed that they are now rolling out their new algorithm-driven feed to their entire user base of over 400 million. After a false alarm in March led to widespread panic and complaints, it is now happening for real. Here’s everything you need to know.

What’s happening?

Up until now, Instagram has always presented posts from other users you follow in chronological order, so the most recently posted images appear at the top (with the occasional paid post interspersed in your feed).

Earlier this year, Instagram announced they would be introducing an algorithm-driven timeline, prompting a frenzy of people asking their followers to turn on notifications to ensure they knew about every new post. I wrote a post at the time about why this was a terrible idea. It still is. We all receive enough notifications on our phone as it is: do we really need to be notified every time someone posts a photo of their lunch, no matter how beautifully presented it is?

In a nutshell, here’s what is changing. Instead of posts being presented in simple chronological order, the algorithm will assess your history and promote posts from people you have previously interacted with (i.e. comments and likes) or who are posting about similar things (based on hashtags and other keywords).

Instagram have been piloting this with a small number of users for a while but they have just started rolling it out worldwide. You may already have seen the change – but, if not, expect to be switched over in the next few days.

How will the new algorithm work?

No one knows exactly how this will work, but the principle is straightforward.

  • Jane follows John and regularly likes and comments on his posts, so John’s posts will float towards the top of Jane’s feed, even if they were posted several hours ago.
  • Posts by James, who Jane follows but never interacts with, will be pushed lower in her feed, even if he last posted five minutes ago. It’s not that Jane will not be able to see James’s posts, but she will be much less likely to unless she wants to go delving into the depths of her feed.
  • Similarly Tim, a fan of Arsenal, regularly likes Arsenal-related posts made by Tom, a fellow Arsenal supporter. Not only will Instagram promote Tom’s posts in Tim’s feed, but it may push other Arsenal-related posts by people Tim does not currently follow into his feed.

The end result should be similar to Facebook’s News Feed (remembering that Facebook own Instagram). Unlike Facebook, however, there appears to be no plan to allow users a ‘most recent’ view which circumvents the algorithm – a key source of dissatisfaction among users.

So while Instagram’s algorithm will determine what you see, this will also be based largely on your own previous behaviours and preferences, so you are in control of what you see to a large extent. Like or comment on content you like, and you will see more of the same and less of the things you don’t interact with.

What does this mean for me?

At the moment, it’s hard to tell until the roll-out is complete and things settle down. The user experience will undoubtedly change, people will see shifts in the number of likes and comments they receive and the volume of advertising will increase, but for now the best thing to do is to focus on content and just wait and see.

Of course, as ever social media has been aflame with lots of disgruntled users since the roll-out started. I’ve never seen a major design change that hasn’t been met with contempt by the online community, which is notoriously resistant to change.

But here’s the thing. For all the complaints about the new feed  – some justified, some hysterical, others simply a natural instinctive reaction to change – Instagram’s trials have shown the new layout actually leads to an increase in comments and likes (on average).

For sure, the new algorithm won’t be perfect – although expect it to improve over time. Yes, we will see more adverts in our feeds – a crucial component of Instagram’s business model. And not everyone will be affected the same way – as with any change there will be winners and losers. People who post good, engaging content will find their posts stick around near the top of their followers’ timelines for longer, rather than being swept away under a tide of new images. But people who post irrelevant, unengaging content will find themselves pushed lower in people’s feeds, with obvious results.

It will be bad for some users, yes, but an opportunity for others who use the platform effectively.

What should I do about it?

My advice hasn’t really changed since my previous post in March.

If you’re already employing good social media practices, the simple answer is: don’t panic and keep doing what you’re already doing. Here are my top three tips:

  1. Keep posting regular, engaging content. This has always been important, but now it’s even more so. Don’t go weeks without posting and then dump 100 images at once. And ask yourself: what will catch a reader’s eye? Your photos don’t have to be professional quality but they you do want them to be interesting enough to make someone stop and like or comment. Post better content than other people and you will benefit from the new algorithm.
  2. Use hashtags and keywords where relevant. People will continue to search for new content using hashtags or key words and phrases, regardless of what appears in their curated stream. The algorithm may also push your content into the feeds of people who don’t currently follow you but share common interests. Apply the same principles you would to SEO optimisation.
  3. Engage with your community. Encourage new comments by replying to existing ones. Like and comment on other users’ posts. People will check out your feed and like/comment back. Like all social media, Instagram should be treated as a two-way street.

It’s not rocket science. The rules of engagement haven’t really changed but the differences between good content publishers and bad ones will become amplified.

Have you been switched over to the new algorithmic feed yet? What do you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.

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