Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The New News Feed

By Anna KambhampatyPublished April 3, 2016

Instagram is changing its age-old news feed algorithm. Users will no longer be seeing posts in reverse chronological order as they always have been, but in an order in which posts they are expected to like or want to see more are displayed first. Who decides this? Well, Instagram's new, mysterious algorithm, of course. This new form of the news feed shows how everything, even our social interactions and likes and dislikes, are being digitized and more and more often algorithmically chosen.

By Anna Kambhampaty, 04/03/16

Facebook currently has over 1.59 billion active monthly users. Twitter has over 305 million, and Instagram has 400 million. Social media platforms such as these weren't always this popular, however. Just three years ago, Instagram only had 90 million users. Along with its growth in popularity, the photo sharing platform has evolved in many ways, now allowing for native advertisements, threaded and improved direct messaging, and even a 3D touch feature. What's next for Instagram?

Last Tuesday, Instagram announced that they plan to begin testing an algorithm-based personalized feed for users, straying from its rudimentary chronologically organized feed. Facebook and Twitter both already have more advanced news feeds; Facebook changed its feed in 2009, switching to an algorithm based mainly on the popularity of posts, and Twitter's news feed feature displays older but still popular tweets at the top of a user's feed if they are away for a long period of time. This change in Instagram's feed will enable photos and videos it thinks you, the user, will most want to see at the top of your feed, ignoring the time at which this media was shared. As they themselves explain, "people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds." The exponential growth of users on the app has made it so that the user follows more people on average, filling up their feeds with more content and, as a result, missing content that they intended to view. Instagram hopes to fix this problem with their new news feed, based off "the likelihood you'll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post." If your sister posts a picture of her wedding ring while you're in a different time zone or stuck without Internet access deep in a Ugandan forest, the first thing you see when you next open your favorite social media app will be a sparkling, glimmering wedding ring. The app will know this post is important to you based on your history of interaction with your sister on Instagram (so, be sure to like all your friends' and family's posts if you want to keep seeing them!). Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, said, in an interview, that what this next move is about is "making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible," since, as mentioned above, users miss around 70 percent of posts of people they follow.

This change was inevitable for Instagram, as a similar feature was introduced in 2012 by Facebook, who attributes much of its success to its "secretive news feed algorithm." Facebook uses thousands of factors to determine which posts to display in what order in users' feeds. The algorithmic feed helped the site grow in users and engagement metrics. Many users were not aware of the amount of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a news feed, and when they were told, many were shocked and angry to learn that Facebook was puppeteering their interactions. There were many reasons as to why this caused a controversy. People were concerned about the invasiveness of this type of personal data collection and disliked the idea of their online activity being packaged for mass consumption through the news feed. When the news feed was first introduced to Facebook, dislike was so strong that groups like "Students Against Facebook News Feed" were formed. Moreover, this type of change to a news feed has the potential to decrease the diversity of the content a user sees, exposing them to fewer diverse perspectives and opinions. Though the user may remain content with this because they are seeing what they like and want to see, this may have bigger, unseen implications that can limit the user's experience and take away from the Internet's purpose.

Instagram's news feed change represents a broader change on the Internet. Instead of going to Google's search box, people can just open their news feeds to get the information they need. It also shows how algorithms are now facilitating social interactions. Is it safe to let technology take over our interactions and decide what's important for us to see? Can we trust "the algorithms" enough to do this for us?