Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram

Instagram Plans to Change the Way Your Feed Works So Popular Photos Have Priority

A social media feed is in many ways an imperfect adaptation of those Kodak Carousel slide projectors from the distant past: a continuous stream of stories thrown onto a nearby surface where viewers can flit back and forth through at their own leisure.

When the stories aren’t too numerous and you only have metaphorical slides of the people you really care about, the system is almost flawless — the most convenient channel ever created for keeping in touch with loved ones around the world.

But once unwanted material starts finding a way of slipping into your projector, clouding your stream with crass products and dull news bites, the show quickly becomes tiresome. This forces social media companies to ask themselves: What do people want to see? How can our algorithms decide this?

Ever since Instagram was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 this has been a looming conundrum — and exactly the same issue that Facebook itself faced as its user base skyrocketed.

Facebook has been dealing with the constant challenge of keeping its platform relevant to users by periodically evolving the way its feed works. Changes throughout the past decade have decreased the ubiquity of both commercial content and your colleague’s 300-strong photo album of their children on holiday.

The effectiveness of their strategy has allowed the network to survive and even prosper in the face of all the other apps and websites that vie for our attention such as YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, Google+, and of course, Instagram.

Instagram now has more than 400 million regular visitors — which is almost a fourth of Facebook’s 1.59 billion monthly users — and it shows no sign of stopping. It’s become a major platform for photographers to display their work virally, and in many ways has supplanted Flickras one of the best ways for photographers to communicate with their fans.

Photography and videography are continuing to dominate the discussion online, and visual platforms like Snapchat and Instagram are now more popular amongst youths than the quip-powered Twitter.

Now Instagram is making changes to their stable feed design that had always displayed stories chronologically, rather than relying on complex algorithms that Facebook and Twitter use to emphasise “interesting” content.

Kevin Systrom, co-founder and CEO of Instagram, highlighted the problem that the company is facing in their official announcement of the changes:

“You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70% of their feeds. As Instagram has grown, it’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.”

When Facebook moved away from chronological feeds in October 2009, users rebelled against the changes and many threatened to leave the network. Facebook eventually prevailed with this necessary change, and their astute evolution of the feed has seen the platform continuously grow from strength to strength — but there’s little question that this is a task that needs to be tackled with great care.

It will be interesting in particular to see how Instagram approach this issue, in part because much of the appeal of the platform has been the immediacy of how images appear across the world.

But as Mike Krieger, Instagram’s co-founder and CTO, noted in an interview with The New York Times, many of the people he follows now aren’t even in his timezone:

“Look at my feed now. I follow accounts from all over the world. It doesn’t really matter to me what time it is.”

According to Krieger, Instagram’s audience is incredible diverse and global; 75% of Instagram users for example live outside the United States, and the content from many of the users he follows would flow by as he sleeps.

These changes from Instagram will make sure that users won’t miss any content due to the sheer mass of images being uploaded; most importantly, unlike in Facebook, less interesting Instagram posts will not be hidden — merely pushed down the queue.

“The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimising the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.”

With Instagram having moved on from being just a platform to follow close contacts, progress is inevitable. Fortunately, the steady hands at the helm seem to have been advised carefully by their partners at Facebook. Systrom takes care to reassure Instagram users that:

“If it’s one thing we do really well as a company, it’s that we take big change slowly and deliberately and bring the community along with us. It’s not like people will wake up tomorrow and have a different Instagram.”