By Stephen Pirrie
A few weeks ago I noticed that the images I was seeing in my explore tab on Instagram had changed. Instead of teen Thai sensations or vacuous model selfies, I was seeing what I can only describe as normal photos. These looked like photos from the same normal world I inhabit. Except I didn’t know who they were from. I wondered, Why are these photos in my explore tab?
When I looked closer these photos had far fewer likes than the previous collections — some had as few as 3 likes — and looking at who was liking these pictures I noticed that amongst the names, there was almost always a friend, someone I followed. Instagram was serving me photos that friends had liked.
For all the talk of Instagram being the most powerful social network, it remains one of the most elusive for analytics considering that 65% of the Interbrand top 100 brands are active on it. There is no algorithm to the newsfeed — rather, it employs the traditional waterfall approach showing every post to a follower as Twitter does and Facebook did before it introduced Edgerank.
So why would they introduce an algorithm now?
For a start the Explore tab was awful: it was based neither on your social graph nor your interest graph. It seemed to be a collection of the most liked posts on the platform — globally. So it wasn’t geo-specific either. (I say “seemed’’ because I cannot confirm this — it’s purely based on my experience but feel free to hit the + on the side there if your experience was different.) A straw poll of my friends and colleagues showed me that almost no one ever used it because it meant nothing to them. So it makes sense they improve it, but to what end?
Relevance & Advertising
Relevance: Instagram was originally a photographer’s network. By showcasing photos that friends of yours have liked, you have the opportunity to see new photographers you may not have come across. And for those who use Instagram firmly rooted within their social graph, seeing posts that your friends like is great for exposing you to new users — friends of friends. Because as we know from Facebook, people become friends with people similar to them in age, demographic and interest so you are more likely to follow a friend of a friend. Irrespective or whether you use Instagram within your instrest graph or your social graph, this is an improvement. If you only follow photographers like @finn in the Explore tab you’ll mainly see photos from more great photographers. But if you mainly follow friends, you’ll see photos from friends of friends you may also want to follow. Win win.
Advertising: the problem for advertisers is that there is no organic solution on Instagram. If people don’t follow you, they don’t see your posts. On Twitter you can retweet; on Tumblr you can repost; Pinterest allows repins; and on Facebook if a friend likes, comments, or shares a post, there’s a chance you’ll see it.
On Instagram… nothing.
If a friend likes a post from a brand, the new Explore algorithm means there’s now a chance you’ll see it. The previous philosophy of “the best of Instagram” meant that brands rarely made it onto the Explore tab because whilst a GoPro photo may get 200k likes, there are more Russian models, nail polish artists and South East Asian boy bands and with higher followers. Brands cannot often compete with Instagram celebrities. (Or any celebrities.) The likelihood to get showcased was based on volume of likes to your post so unless your brand was in the top percentiles of follower numbers, it wouldn’t make it. Now, your brand can have 20 followers and still gain ‘viral’ reach. What’s more, the social proof that comes from friends is far more powerful than social proof from 200k strangers.
So was it relevance or advertising that pushed Instagram to introduce an alogrithm?
The cycnic in me says that it’s Facebook chasing advertising. After all, sponsored posts are not the only possible advertising product on Instagram. I have always felt the Explore tab was the better place for advertising: it’s the environment where users go when they deliberately want to see posts from users they don’t follow whereas sponsored posts are the worst type of advertising — interruptive.
Meanwhile the purist in me says it’s Instagram improving their product experience to make the explore tab actually mean something.
Either way, it’s better for both brands and users.
First published on medium.com