The Instagram algorithm: how it affects what we post as well as what we see
My thoughts on the Instagram algorithm, let me bore you with them...
I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and I’ve seen quite a few Instagram posts and blog posts touching on this in the last few months, mainly from frustrated Instagram users who no longer have the organic reach they enjoyed in pre-algorithm days, when everyone’s feed was chronological – you saw the posts of everyone you followed in the order in which they’d been posted.
Most of you probably already know this, but in June 2016, Instagram made the decision to introduce a non-chronological feed based on what it thinks a particular user would most like to see. The ingredients for this magic formula are a secret, but essentially Instagram takes your post, shows it to a sample size of your followers, and if it performs better than expected in terms of likes, comments and saves, it will show it to more of them. If it doesn’t, then the algorithm interprets that to mean that your content is less engaging or interesting to your audience, and so your post may never appear on many of your followers’ feeds.
It provokes a lot of frustration amongst some users, because it means you probably miss posts from profiles you follow unless you manually navigate to their profile and look at their feed. However, Instagram has said that since the service began ranking content, engagement has actually increased overall. People like more, comment more and interact more with the app. As more people joined the platform, it became harder and harder for users to keep up with all the feeds they followed – in that case, the thinking goes, the average user may benefit from having low-performing posts weeded out for them. It means they use their time on the app to engage with those posts which are already pre-selected to be of interest.
But you can see why Instagram accounts with large followings were dismayed when their organic reach dropped noticeably (you’re probably lucky if 20% of your followers see your posts these days). For the average person, it doesn’t really matter all that much, and you probably don’t have a strong opinion about it. If you’re somebody who makes a living via Instagram, for example as a small business, a maker or creative using Instagram to showcase your work, as a freelance photographer, or as an “influencer”, then your engagement and reach are key factors in whether brands and companies might want to work with you.
For myself, I only started a public account in February 2016, so my experience of the chronological feed was fairly limited compared to some. And my understanding of the algorithm is that it privileges newer, smaller accounts, which tend to have higher engagement anyway. My own growth in 2016 under the non-chronological algorithm was steady and reliable and looking back I took it pretty much for granted; I’ve noticed a marked drop in growth in the last couple of months, however.
One of the groups of people affected by the change in algorithm are those users, many of them early adopters of the app, who have been made Suggested Users in the past, sometimes more than once. If you think back to when you first joined Instagram, you may remember you were given a list of accounts you might like to follow. These people are Suggested Users, which means that when Instagram was experiencing massive growth, Suggested Users may have benefited to the tune of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of followers, as new joiners clicked “Follow” en masse.
One problem with having been made a Suggested User, however, is that many of those new joiners may never log back in to the app again, or they may not be very highly engaged followers – they may decide after a while that they don’t really like what you do, and so they unfollow, in potentially large numbers. Of the accounts that remain, many of them may essentially be dormant.
So when Instagram introduced its new algorithm, if it took into account the number of people engaging with your photos as a proportion of your total number of followers to decide how engaging your photo was, it may well have concluded almost as a matter of course that your content was not engaging. Your photos get shown to fewer people, your growth slows or reverses, and it can be a struggle ever to achieve the sort of engagement you were experiencing before. (I’ve never been a suggested user myself – and with the way the algorithm works these days, it's probably better in terms of engagement to grow your account organically, because the people who follow you are likely to have come across your profile via hashtags or location tags, and therefore to have more of a particular interest in your photos.)
There are a few things I feel about complaints from large accounts that engagement has dropped. Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that your average user with a following of less than 1000 people isn’t likely to have much sympathy if you regularly receive your likes in the thousands but complain about engagement. Your engagement might be lower than it used to be, but it still looks pretty impressive. I would also say that regardless of how many followers you have, it’s important to post content that you’re proud of, because using engagement on Instagram as a measure of your abilities as a photographer can be very misleading and demotivating. There are some excellent photographers with relatively low Instagram engagement, and there are some accounts whose aesthetic I don’t personally share whose engagement is sky-high.
But at the end of the day, Instagram is a game, and it’s always changing. You can choose how willing you are to adhere to the rules of that game, or you can decide to care less about the numbers and look to it (or to other avenues) for fun and creative fulfilment. If the numbers and the creative fulfilment go hand in hand, that's marvellous. My sense though is that most people steer a kind of middle course – posting photos they know people will enjoy (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and sometimes photos that they know may not garner the likes that other photos get, but that either they want to post because they like them and are proud of them, or perhaps because it’s a collaboration with a brand (again, there’s nothing wrong in my book with earning some money through Instagram – I think as long as you disclose if a post is paid for or you’ve received something as a gift, then everyone is clear on the intent, and can choose whether or not to engage with it).
In the London Instagram context, which is the one I’m probably most familiar with, all of this means that people may feel pressure to post photos they know will do well, at the expense of originality. It's a pressure that can be very hard to resist. Sameness tends to be rewarded by the algorithm, and so the temptation is always there to pander to a kind of cliched or recognisable image of London, and so the same images appear regularly in people's feeds - people post those images which they already know will do well.
I’m guilty of all of those things (hello, Warren Mews!). But the images I like most and am most proud of are often not the ones that perform the best on Instagram. For example, I went to Italy for a month last year, to lots of highly Instagrammable places (Cinque Terre, the Amalfi coast etc). But the photo I liked best from that whole trip is the one that did the worst in terms of likes:
Do I care? No, I don’t. I loved this image and it captured a particular moment and a feeling that was meaningful to me. (Also, nuns at a food truck with a sausage dog? It’s perfect as far as I’m concerned.)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want, and sometimes taking photos of well-known Instagram “landmarks” is a way of measuring yourself as a photographer and seeing how your interpretation of a well-known place compares to other people’s. (Hannah Argyle wrote an excellent post about this recently.) I’ve learned an awful lot about photography just from looking at the way others frame particular shots, the way they edit them, etc. Especially at the beginning, when you’re developing your own style and aesthetic, it’s a useful way of working that out. But eventually, if all you take are the same shots as everyone else, it becomes repetitive and cliched. I personally don’t want to see the same shots again and again. It can feel a little strategic and cold, and for me that's a turn-off, although there are no doubt plenty of people who aren't bothered by this.
For myself, I think there's a balance to be struck between posting shots I know will perform well and trying to develop some originality and creativity, whether that is popular or not. That creativity is the reason that I most enjoy Instagram, both as an Instagrammer and a consumer of images, and the accounts I find the most inspiring are the ones that find new things to photograph, shed new light on a familiar place, see things with a different perspective, or bring a different and distinctive style and aesthetic to those familiar places. Oh, and awesome captions are good too. (Easy, right? 😂)
So my advice, if you’ve managed to make it this far through my rant (and if so, you deserve a gold star!), is not to rely on Instagram for your self-worth. Enjoy it for what it is – a game, which sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Enjoy it as a way of seeing a whole world of different perspectives, a way of finding the inspiring photographers and makers and creatives who abound on the platform. If you’re an Instagrammer with a large following, I still think the most rewarding way to approach it is to not just to create images that are basically clickbait, but to use it as a springboard for your own creative journey and to produce work you’re genuinely proud of.
It’s a bit like the game of snakes and ladders – sometimes you go up, sometimes you go down, and it’s important to view both outcomes as philosophically as possible, and not to take any of it too personally or too seriously. As they say in The Wire, “it’s all in the game!”
Do let me know what your thoughts are on all of this. Do you feel pressure to post a certain type of image? Is your engagement up or down? I’d also love to hear from people about what kind of images they most enjoy seeing on Instagram!