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For Many Users, Instagram Algorithm Is Not a Pretty Picture

By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 30, 2016 2:39 PM PT

Instagram on Monday moved to calm concerns among some users about a proposed change in the way content appears in their feeds.

For Many Users, Instagram Algorithm Is Not a Pretty Picture

Celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Cindy Crawford fueled the anxiety by urging their followers to enable a feature on their mobile devices that would notify them whenever those celebrities post to Instagram.

"A lot of accounts began posting pictures and saying, 'You may not be able to see pictures like this anymore unless you turn on notifications,'" said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research.

"It was an overreaction to something that wasn't even happening," he told TechNewsWorld.

Instagram assured users that nothing was changing with their feeds yet and promised to notify them when the changes roll out broadly.

Change Proposed

What's bugging some Instagram users is a proposed change in how the service sorts content sent to their feeds. Instead of content appearing chronologically, user preferences, based on an algorithm devised by Instagram, would determine placement of content.

People miss on average 70 percent of their feeds, Instagram said earlier this month.

The company's growth has made it harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share, so users often don't see the posts that are most important to them, it said.

To improve the experience, the order of photos and videos in users' feeds will be based on the likelihood that they will be interested in the content, their relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post, Instagram said.

All posts will still be available but in a different order, it added.

Mixed Reactions

A petition to "Keep Instagram Chronological" had garnered more than 330,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

"If you do not want your feed to be presented in an order that you don't have any control over and would prefer to have it presented in the current chronological format or -- at least -- have the choice to sort your feed the way you want, please sign the petition," Sarah Heard, the petition's author, wrote at Change.org.

Power users of the service also have shown concern over the proposed change, according to Andreas Scherer, managing partner with Salto Partners.

"They've urged their followers to turn on notifications so that their updates are not missed," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Essentially, anytime this Instagram celebrity would post a picture, the followers will get pinged on their phone," Scherer said. "It's easy to see that even the most enthusiastic Instagram users will get turned off by this very quickly."

Advertising Play

A similar change adopted by Instagram's parent, Facebook, ultimately had an impact on advertisers.

In order to achieve more favorable placement, companies were required to purchase Facebook's advertising services, Pund-IT Principal Analyst Charles King explained.

"Companies that depend on Instagram to drive recognition and revenues will be hard-pressed not to buy in," he told TechNewsWorld.

"After what happened when Facebook switched to algorithm-based feeds, it's certainly not something that small business' will want!" wrote petition author Heard.

Just as the proposed change is supposed to put more desirable content in front of user eyeballs, it may do the same for advertising.

"Instagram will be able to give high-quality, targeted advertising to its users," said Elizabeth Lampert, president of Elizabeth Lampert PR.

"The revenue from ads is definitely one plausible explanation for building the algorithm," she told TechNewsWorld.

Tempest in a Teapot

"Instagram has become a major social network and publicity opportunity for some of its most famous users," said Ross Rubin, senior director for industry analysis at App Annie.

"Whenever you have an app that has attracted a huge following, it's virtually impossible to make a change without drawing the ire of some users," he told TechNewsWorld. "Instagram is seeing the same kind of reactions that have followed proposed changes to Facebook and Twitter."

Some members of the Instagram community may be overreacting to the proposed changes, Salto's Scherer maintained.

"It's safe to assume that celebrity updates will still be relevant in a person's timeline with or without notifications turned on," he said. "Moreover, it is safe to assume that this topic will be dropped quickly as the Instagram users adjust to the new timeline algorithm."

At any rate, users will have lots of time to adjust to the new regime. "This will take months and weeks to test," Lambert said, "so there is no need to panic."

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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