The inevitability of the social media algorithm

Who loses when the algorithm takes over?
A 10-year-old boy has discovered a glitch in Facebook-owned Instagram that lets anyone delete user comments. He earned $10,000 from Facebook's bug bounty program for finding the bug. (Reuters)

A few weeks ago, Instagram posted a note to their blog. It said the words many users feared-- there would be changes to the chronological feed.

Right now on Instagram, your feed is presented to you with the most recent posts showing up first, reverse chronologically. But the people at Instagram say this causes users to miss out on seventy percent of the pictures and short videos posted by the friends, artists and brands they follow. And that's why they want to make this change, to optimize the order of what appears so that ostensibly you will see more of the posts you want to see.

A "most popular" Instagram page is displayed on a phone screen. (REUTERS)
So what's the big deal? The rationale isn't new. Instagram's parent company, Facebook, introduced a similar feed back in 2009. An algorithm determines which posts you'd be most interested in, curating a feed based on your own user stats. 

Instagram says they're still in the testing phase and it will be months before any changes happen, but a lot of diehard Instagram users are unhappy. Especially people who generate business through Instagram --- photographers, artists, clothing designers, and the like.

Kevin Systrom, Chief Executive of Instagram. (REUTERS)
What if their posts stop showing up in their followers' feeds? What if Instagram starts asking for money to promote their posts, like Facebook has done? How will they compete with big brands that have huge followings and the resources to thrive?

Arden Wray is a photographer. She says that in the last year and a half "most of my bigger new commissions from clients have come from Instagram in some way."  Alanna Cavanagh, an illustrator and artist, says that she gets about 40 percent of her sales from Instagram. 

"I think it will definitely affect us in a bad way" Alanna says, "because all the big brands... that have many, many followers and high engagement... with the new algorithm, all those are going to rise to the top."

Nicholas Deleon, the consumer technology editor for Motherboard, says that social media platforms adopting this sort of curated feed is likely inevitable. "This is a broader trend and I'm not surprised to see it happen."

"If you're building upon a private platform...  you're really playing by their rules." Nicholas says that this is a matter of "...whether the potential audience is worth the threat of maybe ceding control over the distribution of your photos, your content, whatever the case may be."


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