The Instagram algorithm: what’s the deal?
As with many social networks, Instagram originally featured a reverse-chronological feed of updates posted by those who you were following. In mid-2016, the feed shifted and is now fed by an algorithm of the content that the service deems will be most interesting to those who are browsing photos.
Update January 2021: – much of the information below is now outdated – you should check out this updated article on the Instagram algorithm in 2021.
Photographers often wonder how the Instagram algorithm works, why it’s in place (instead of just showing everything chronologically), and whether it’s helping or hurting your time on Instagram.
Recently Instagram held an event with some press where they revealed how things work, as reported by TechCrunch. Let’s dive in.
Prior to the switch to the algorithmic feed in July 2016, Instagram says that users only saw about 50 percent of their friends’ posts.
As we look at how Instagram works and its motivations, we must keep in mind that like Facebook (its parent company), Instagram’s revenue is from advertising. Users never pay to post to Instagram, explore the service, or browse their feed. Instagram’s revenue comes when advertisers place advertisements on the service and when users to take an action (tap) to learn more.
Because Instagram makes money when you view and take actions on advertising, Instagram has a compelling business interest to entice users to spend as much time using the application as possible.
As a user, you want to see photography (presumably from your friends).
As a business, Instagram wants you to keep looking at photography.
But the prior chronological timeline only led to folks seeing about half of what their friends posted.
With the new algorithm, Instagram users now see 90 percent of the posts from their friends and spend more time in the app overall. In theory, that’s a win-win for both you and for Instagram, right?
But if you’re not seeing things chronologically anymore, what dictates the order in which you see Instagram posts? Turns out it boils down to three main things (with three other supporting factors).
Instagram’s Three Primary Timeline Factors
The first factor used is based on how interesting Instagram thinks the photo will be to you. This includes your past behavior – have you liked similar images in the past? Is this the sort of work with which you typically interact?
How does Instagram know what you like? At this point it’s not difficult for computers to roughly categorize photos into groups such as people, travel, sports, food, and the like. If you routinely engage more with images of a certain category, there’s a good chance that Instagram will rank those images higher and show them earlier in your feed.
This one is pretty simple: more recent posts will be prioritized over ones that are days or weeks old. Some of this depends on your usage… if you check the app frequently, then naturally there will be more recent updates to see. If you’re a sporadic user, you’ll only be seeing the highlights, and those highlights will favor regency.
Instagram wants to ensure you don’t miss content from your closest friends and family. In fact, in 2016 when they introduced the algorithmic timeline, they specifically said:
And no matter how many accounts you follow, you should see your best friend’s latest posts.
How does Instagram know who are your best friends? It considers factors such as these:
- People you know in real life
- People whose Instagram content you like (photos, stories, live videos)
- People with you who leave comments on their Instagram posts
- People that you search for
- People that you send direct Instagram messages
Three Lesser Factors
Although interest, timeliness, and relationships are the main drivers of what you’ll see in your Instagram timeline, there are three supporting factors that also play a part.
How often you use the Instagram app will affect what you see. As mentioned above in the Timeliness section, when you log in, Instagram will try to show you what it feels is the best content for you to see. If it’s been a long time since you opened the app, there’s a much bigger pool of content to determine what’s “best.” On the other hand, if you open the app several times each day, each time Instagram will have a smaller pool of fresh content from which to determine “best.”
The greater the number of accounts that you follow, the greater the pool of content from which Instagram can pull from. If you only follow a handful of folks, it makes sense that you’ll have less variety (and probably more predictability) in your timeline.
Length of Usage Sessions
If a user typically has very short sessions browsing Instagram, the app will do its best to show only the most relevant stuff in that short period of time. If a user routinely spends much longer periods browsing back through their timeline, the service may spread things out a bit since there is more time to surface a wider range of content.
Things that are NOT Instagram Algorithm Factors
- There’s no preference to photos or videos overall. But if a given user has shown a propensity to prefer one or the other, that user’s timeline will feature more of what that person has found interesting.
- There are no changes to the feed algorithm based on whether you use other features of the app such as Live or Stories.
- You won’t be hidden or down-ranked for posting too frequently.
- Speaking of hiding… Instagram doesn’t hide posts at all. If someone scrolls long enough, eventually they’ll see everything that was posted by those who they are following.
Additionally, Instagram notes that there is no such thing as an Instagram shadowban, despite what some articles online might lead you to believe.
That’s the Instagram Algorithm. So What?
We’re in an age now where algorithmic feeds are the norm for major social networks (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest…) and longing for the “good old days” of a chronological feed isn’t productive. Whether you like it or not, the algorithmic feed is here for a while, if not forever. As I noted earlier, if it works well, the Instagram algorithm meets both your needs as a content browser (see more of the stuff that’s most interesting to you) as well as the social network’s desire to have you spend more time on the service.
The more you use Instagram and interact with the posts that you enjoy, the better you’ll be able to “train” the Instagram algorithm to show you more of the good stuff. Go forth and enjoy!