I, For One, Welcome Our Algorithm Overlords

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Are you done with Instagram?

Earlier this week, Instagram (owned by Facebook) announced that it would be testing a new algorithm in the feed. What does that mean, in plain non-Silicon Valley English? It means that instead of getting the organic flow of pictures that you now see on Instagram (which is, essentially, the people that you follow, and their most recent pictures and videos), Instagram (or rather a computer program that Instagram built) will decide what you will be seeing in your feed. We are removing the humans who have posted.

The robots are coming. The robots are coming.

People are panicked. They’re worried. They feel like they are losing their freewill. There may be a revolt at hand. Or not. What if it works? What if it’s a good thing? What if you saw this awesome combination of the people you really liked (based on photos you have hearted or commented on, or the people that you engage with the most) first, coupled with the subconscious choices that you make (the time of day that you tend to hop on Instagram, types of images that you may have liked and not known that you were developing a pattern of interest in, or even pictures of people you don’t follow, but are heavily liked by those you engage with the most?). What if Instagram started showing you images of people that you’re friends with on Facebook, who recently joined Instagram, and made it easier to start seeing their stuff? Imagine how much better your feed might be. 

We don’t know what we don’t know.

Facebook’s explosive growth came post introduction of the news feed. Before the news feed, all we saw were the most recent posts of everyone that we were connected to, by having to hop over and visit their individual pages, once they changed some kind of status. That format worked, and it helped build the popularity of the online social network. When Facebook did introduce the news feed (first in 2006, and then updated – in a big way – in 2011), they faced a ton of criticism. Facebook (like Instagram) was allowing the algorithm to decide what users see and connect with. This algorithm is “all knowing” and it controls the content. People had the same reaction that they’re currently having about Instagram. Now, think about it, how great is the Facebook news feed? I’d say it has made Facebook the superior social media experience that it has become.

Love the algorithm.

There. I said it. I used to be a purest. I used to hate when these platforms decided what to show (and what to hold back). I’m a big boy. I know who I am following. I know the type of content that I am interested in. If I don’t like something, the tools to hide, mute, delete, unfriend, etc… are obvious. Let me decide. Still, as the years wane on, it has become abundantly clear to me, that the algorithm does know better. Quick example: I’m super close with someone in Europe. When they post, I’m usually asleep or “away.” Because the algorithm knowns this, their content was suddenly presented, integrated and highlighted. I’ll often “step away” from certain channels for a few days. When I log back in, I used to not be able to scroll all the way back to the people I mostly wanted to connect with. The algorithm has truly solved for this. The results: I’m more connected to the platform. I use it more often. It’s most relevant to me. 

Hate the algorithm.

The other side of this will be problematic for brands. While Instagram, Facebook and other platforms move to a more algorithmic feed, to keep users engaged and connected, the best stuff may not be the stuff being posted from brands. This algorithm also empowers Instagram to throttle content from brands that is not performing at the same level as the user’s friends (and, let’s be honest, we all know how hard it is to create branded content that can be as admired as our friend’s pictures and videos). We’ve seen this happen at Facebook, and it’s a smart bet that this is going to happen on Instagram now. If brands want to reach their fans (and acquire new ones), they are going to have to pay for it, and up the quality of their game (regardless of the free run they had to acquire all of these fans). This will be both an expensive and frustrating transition for the brands that have already built a following on Instagram. It’s going to make newer brands – that have yet to embrace the platform – to think twice about their ability to do anything substantive on it as well without paying a heavy freight.

Play the game.   

There are two sides to this story. Story #1: Instagram will quickly become a pay-to-play service for brands at a macro-level. Story #2: Instagram will be an amazing space for brands who understand what their consumers want in this channel, what Instagram will prioritize (in terms of content that works), and have a very visually appealing space to tell more interesting stories. Brands don’t have to choose just one story, in this scenario.

Do you embrace the algorithm? Is your feed all the better for it?