Saturday, 19 March 2016

In defence of the Instagram algorithm

angry mob simpsons

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on change, and how it's the only constant in life, let alone social media. It seems that I didn't do a very good job of promoting it in social media circles (my bad), because people are still losing their shit about platforms changing.

This week's instalment? Instagram announced that they'd be applying an algorithm to their feed.

In their own words:

'You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70 percent 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.
To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. 
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 optimizing the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order. 
If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in. And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.
We’re going to take time to get this right and listen to your feedback along the way. You’ll see this new experience in the coming months.'

Sounds reasonable to me, what about you?

From the social media fallout that greeted this announcement, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd just told the world that they'd just built Skynet, and that it's now fully operational and self-aware. There was hand-wringing in the Guardian. There was a petition. A PETITION. 182,000 people have signed it so far. The UN have debated it. They haven't. I made that up. Sorry.

Look: I get it. I do. People don't like change. But in life, change happens. As somebody who works in social media, I have to put up with this shit every week. Algorithms change constantly, and yes, there should be a legitimate concern about where this leads with regards to many people's interactions with the web, and how we can freely access information.

But Instagram is changing this algorithm so that you see more of what you care about, and that will, like you, change over time. I am not the same person that I was five years ago. I have different tastes and interests, and I'm not in the business of routinely pruning my Facebook page likes - there are too many of them. So the Facebook algorithm really helps me. If there are posts from pages in my feed that I'm not dwelling on, or clicking on, then Facebook puts them lower down in the feed, and puts the shit that I am interested in (friends, family, anything related to Southampton Football Club or Angry People in Local Newspapers) at the top. Great! Saves me a lot of time.

I have been on Instagram long enough to follow a fair few people. Some of them are more relevant and important to me than others. Some of them are important to me now, but may not be as important to me in a few weeks/months. I don't want to have to constantly unfollow brands that are no longer relevant to me - it's a time-suck I can do without. That's the beauty of what an algorithm can do for you. It responds to you. It gives you a more personal experience, not a less personal experience, on the most personal piece of tech hardware you have.

It's important. That's why there's credence to the Dunbar's number theory of us having a cognitive limit to the amount of relationships that we can maintain (between 100-250).

Jay Baer tells brands that you shouldn't collect fans and followers like you collect baseball cards. As humans, we eschew that. We love to follow. Social media has allowed us to binge on our interests - and that's okay. But likes and loves are weighted. They run on a spectrum. They change like the weather. I love my partner, and I really like astronomy. Therefore, I'd like to see posts about both when I log into my Instagram profile, but I'd like to see posts from my partner first. An algorithm will help me with that. I won't miss what she's put up there anymore. We can share more fun moments on there.

At the moment, when I log into Instagram, the first thing I can see is a picture of Noel Clarke, that he hasn't taken, which means next to nothing to me.

A photo posted by Noel Clarke (@noelclarke) on

Sorry Noel, but I'd much rather see a picture of what my friends and family, or Southampton FC are up to. An algorithm would help me with that.

Ultimately, as with most algorithms that govern social networks, you control what you see. If you don't like what you see, stop 'liking' it. That's how you change it.

So before we all get high and mighty about the effect that algorithms have on our social networks, let's not chuck the baby out with the bathwater. I would argue that Facebook's algorithm has made the platform more useful than Twitter over the years.

Our loves and likes are like the weather. Algorithms can help us manage that more effectively. The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. William Arthur Ward said it, and I have to say, I agree with every word.

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