Analyzing the UX of Instagram’s Ranking System
In 2016, Instagram announced that it would change its feed from chronologically listing photos to a new ranking system.
I became instantly nervous. Algorithms are inherently confusing and bias. I had little confidence that Instagram could predict what I wanted to see on my feed without compromising honesty and transparency.
Though I admit, I see why Instagram wanted to move in this direction. The potential of a great algorithmic feed is exciting to think about:
It could offer users a more curated experience, deliver higher-quality content, and phase out bizarre side-effects of chronological timelines. For instance, it’s kind of a bummer that posting a photo at a specific time greatly increases/decreases the effectiveness.
Practically every social media company has integrated algorithms into their feed with varying levels of success.
None though, have been more harshly hated than Instagram’s ranking system.
People loathe Instagram’s ranking system. I’m going to explain why.
Instagram’s Ranking System Monopolizes Engagement, Interaction, and Likes
If your Instagram photos receive a lot of likes, they will be rated higher, then your photos will “featured” and receive even more likes.
If your photos receive only a handful likes, they will be rated lower, possibly be “buried” and your photos will receive even fewer likes.
Its a classic case of the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
With Instagram’s ranking system, a handful of influencers are cannibalizing all of the engagement on Instagram. It’s becoming harder for a casual user to have fun posting on the platform because their posts will always take a backseat to Kim Kardashian’s photos.
This sucks. If I wanted to post photos and have no one see them, I’d use Facebook or VSCO. Maybe even g-mail them to my grandma.
When Instagram was chronological, it was more viable to be a casual producer. You could post some low-quality photos (but meaningful to you and your network of friends) and have them appear along-side influencer’s high-quality photos.
This is becoming increasingly difficult. Influencers will always post higher-quality content then the average-joe and Instagram is giving influencers the platform to take ‘likes’ and ‘attention’ away from them.
We all like high-quality content as consumers. But as casual-producers, we want our content seen. This is where Instagram used to shine. Now it falters.
Rankings Have Unindented Side-Effects On How We Consume
Some of my friend’s content I never see. I have to scroll for minutes to get to their posts.
On the contrary I have other friends content I always see. I see their content a creepy amount. Their posts are always first on my feed. Their stories are always first on the story bar.
These two cases are extremes that are the result of a bias algorithm. Now I have to manually avoid these two cases if I want a more moderate timeline.
When Instagram was chronological, I was so carefree with how I interacted with content. I liked stuff, commented on stuff, and skipped over stuff with no worries.
But now there’s some weight that comes with liking a photo verses not liking a photo.
I have to ask myself, “Do I want to see more of this users content? Even though I like this particular photo, do I like it enough to have the user appear at the top of my feed for the next month? If I don’t like a photo, am I okay with never seeing this user’s content again?”
The above video is a funny vine made about social media algorithms. Though it is satire, it can definitely feel like disliking a photo really does “banish that user to hell” in the eyes of social media algorithms.
Where’s The Trust?
Probably the biggest problem with Instagram’s ranking system is just how flat-out bizarre it is.
The tech community been asking Instagram to explain their ranking system in detail for years and their responses have always resembled magic hand-waves like this:
Does this actually explain anything? Not really.
There have been many #fakeNews conspiracy theories about Instagram. Most recently people wondered if Instagram caps the number of times photos appear organically to 7% of a user’s follower base. Instagram denied this allegation.
These Instagram algorithm conspiracy theories happen often, and every time they do the tech community becomes outraged at the conspiracy theorists for spreading fake news.
At this point though, I’m starting blame Instagram. They are doing virtually nothing to keep their service transparent to the public. It’s no wonder why so many people are confused and bitter about how their photos were ranked.
Instagram has handled the roll-out of their ranking system in the most nefarious way possible: mysterious posts, little-to-no information, and ignorance to criticism.
Chronological Instagram posts weren’t perfect. Far from it. They showed imperfect content, made it harder for influencers to become trending, and incentivized influencers to post at a specific time of day rather than focus on quality-content. I commend Instagram for wanting to push the envelope and fix these issues.
But in the end, chronological posts had one competitive advantage that Instagram’s ranking system never had: It was understandable.
Chronological posts were fair. People knew what chronological meant and how to use it.
Ranking systems are the opposite. They’re weird, they’re unfair, they monopolize likes, they force users to miss specific content, they force users to see other specific content, and they’re inherently bias.
A little more transparency will go a long way in fixing this issue. Until Instagram figures that out, they will always have backlash over what is probably a well-intentioned service.
(Yes I still love Instagram and objectively hate their ranking algorithm. I can do both. I’m an adult.)