The Facebook-ification of Instagram

If you're an Instagram user who enjoys checking-in with your feed and seeing all the photos from people you're following, in reverse chronological order (date descending), you'll want to keep your eye on Facebook's desire to change that experience, and make Instagram more like Facebook.

Algorithm-based changes to timelines are generally viewed as a great disruptor to faithful, long-term users, but Facebook has successfully weathered this storm before. If your fever for photos is schooled in the feedways of Instagram (date-descending) and Twitter (date-descending), you might shiver at the idea of a machine deigning to show you what it thinks is important.

What's important, to all of these platforms, isn't necessarily keeping their users happy, it's leveraging their huge audience (you) to sell advertising and keep you around by showing "popular" posts, rather than posts from people and entities you'd prefer to see. In order to serve you the photos that Instagram (or Facebook) wants you to see, they have to change the date-descending timelines, which will keep you from seeing all the latest cat pics from your Aunt.

"I like how I can open the app and see what my stepsister Ashley is doing today with my niece and nephew, right in that very moment,” she said. “I want to judge what’s important, not have some algorithm tell me what it thinks is important." - NYT
There was a Twitter kerfuffle on this same issue earlier this year, and Twitter said you'll have the opportunity to opt-out. Generally, an algorithmic timeline is the biggest difference between Twitter and Facebook. Facebook was $mart enough in 2009 to make a business decision that prioritized advertising & popularity over maintaining a familiar user experience. And Twitter's resisted the changeover as long as possible.

But it's fascinating to see recent rumbles across the Instagram world (more than 400 million users in Sept. 2015) including complaints about the persistence of ads watering-down the familiarity (and love) of hyper-curated personal feeds. If both Twitter & Instagram give users the opportunity to opt-out, they'll quell the disruption, but the echo just might inspire the Next Great Photo Sharing Service to come along and steal the show.

Update: It might be useful to offer-up a solution to the great "I missed all these photos while I was asleep" complaint that Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger mentioned in the Times piece, which sounds like a way to fuel common-sense logic in support of his service's change. But the problem might not be that Krieger's missing important photos, it's that he's following too many people in his "show me everything" timeline.

While most of us have created our own recipes and behavior modifications for keeping-up with the data deluge from which Krieger (and co-founder Kevin Systrom) are seeking relief, I thought I'd share mine, in that it's proven to be a successful (and sane) way to stay engaged. I follow 104 people on my personal Twitter account, and I try to keep it right around 100. The tweets from those 104 are updates I don't want to miss, and I definitely don't want them filtered by a machine. They're my primary "show me everything" bucket (or timeline).

To complement that selection, I maintain a private list of over a thousand people (an underutilized Twitter feature, currently unavailable on Instagram) of folks from whom I'd like to see updates, but not necessarily everything. I check-in there if I'm looking for more noise.

It's antithetical to all of these services to show users how to sanely follow fewer people. But Kevin Systrom is "missing photos" while he's sleeping because he's trying to keep-up with 600+ users, spread across time-zones. Keeping-up with 100 (or so) is totally manageable, whichever service you're on. If Instagram gave its users the chance to select a subset of their primary timeline, and say, "always show me everything from these folks", it would be a smart way forward.

Speaking of algorithms, I thought I'd try and use Google's reverse image search to learn more about the photograph on the wall in the Time's accompanying portrait of Instagram's two co-founders, photographed by Jason Henry.

instagram_jason-henry_2© Jason Henry

Google's algorithm was able to detect the lighting and color of the piece, but that's about it. Then again, Instagram's site has never been super-friendly to the open Web and Google search results. When was the last time you Google'd something and ended-up with an Instagram-based result?

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