How Does Instagram's Algorithm Give Posts According to Your Tastes?

Instagram needs no introduction. It’s a platform with a straightforward purpose on the surface. The USP of Instagram is that it’s based around photos, which are super easy to take with a smartphone. You don’t have to carry around a camera to share things with the world — just snap a photo, apply a filter, and I am good to go.

How does such a seemingly simple platform always seem to show you posts that you want to or prefer to see? How does it know what you like and what your tastes are? How exactly does the Instagram feed work? In 2016 Facebook acquired Instagram and quickly incorporated clever algorithms to improve their feed which literally seem to read your mind. How?!

Recently, Instagram publicly shared the six key ranking factors which cause this:

  • Interest
  • Timeliness
  • Relationships

There are also three additional criteria that play a smaller part in your Instagram feed rankings:

  • Frequency
  • Following
  • Usage

1. Interest

This is the prime factor. Instagram reveals that the order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood that you will be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting, and the timeliness of the post. Content relevant to your interests will rank higher on your feed. But how does Instagram know what your interests are? It looks at the genres of content (travel, food, fashion, sports, movies, TV programs) that you have interacted with the most in the past. With photo recognition technologies at astoundingly effective levels, it’s probably possible for the algorithm to categorise posts into simple genres such as travel, food, fashion, and more — and possibly even more sophisticated genres. The algorithm could also look at the hashtags used. If there is a certain genre of content that you engage with more frequently (e.g. food), Instagram might rank content of that genre (e.g. food, restaurants) higher on your feed.

2. Timeliness

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the timelines of posts. Instagram shows you posts that are recent and, consequently, more relevant. Something from last week might not interest you as much as something from an hour ago, so Instagram will likely show you more recent posts rather than posts from a few days or weeks ago — even if the older post had received a lot of engagement.

3. Relationships

No matter how many accounts you follow, you’d certainly be more interested in viewing, say, your best friend’s latest posts. Just like Facebook, Instagram doesn’t want you to miss important posts from your friends, family and:

  • People whose content you like (possibly including stories and live videos)
  • People you DM (direct message)
  • People you search for
  • People you may know in real life

While the above might not be the exact criteria used in the Instagram algorithm, they suggest that Instagram probably considers the accounts you frequently interact with as people you care about — and it has confirmed that content from these accounts will rank higher on your feed, so that you don’t have to search for their profiles to see their posts — thus improving your Instagram experience.

The 3 additional Instagram feed ranking factors

Frequency of opening Instagram: If you open Instagram once daily, you will likely see the posts that Instagram’s algorithm feels are the most relevant for that day. However, if you open Instagram hourly, Instagram will try to show you the most relevant content according to your tastes which you haven’t seen before.

Following: This refers to the content from all the accounts you follow. If you follow thousands of accounts on Instagram, the algorithm must sort through more content to decide what to show you each time you open up the app. This means that users who follow large numbers of people might see less from each individual account, whereas users who follow just a few select accounts are likely to see more from their closest friends or favourite accounts.

Usage: Whether a user tends to browse Instagram in short bursts or longer sessions can also affect what the algorithm shows. If you prefer short visits to Instagram, the algorithm will ensure it shows the most relevant posts first, whereas for users who prefer longer browsing sessions it may provide a deeper catalog of fresh content to browse.

“Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded,” says Jeff Siebert, a former executive at Twitter. “The intelligence gleaned from those actions is then used in conjunction with our own psychological weaknesses to get us to watch more videos, share more content, see more ads, etc.”

Negative Impacts

Political polarisation. Rising anxiety and depression. Misinformation and rumours that spread like wildfire. The underlying factor of all such phenomena is our involvement in digital social networking. Is social media ruining the world? Can simple acts like sharing photos and articles, reading the news, and connecting with friends have such destructive consequences? These are the questions explored in the new Netflix docu-drama The Social Dilemma by having experts talk about the billions of data points that tech companies are constantly collecting about us. The intelligence gleaned from those actions is then used in conjunction with our own psychological weaknesses to get us to watch more videos, share more content, see more ads, and continue driving Big Tech’s money-making engine.

Ex Google executive, Tristan says, “While we’ve all been looking out for the moment when AI would overwhelm human strengths — when would we get the Singularity, when would AI take our jobs, when would it be smarter than humans — we missed this much earlier point when technology didn’t overwhelm human strengths, but it undermined human weaknesses.”

A recent study in the US found that Instagram and other social networking platforms are associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and a “fear of missing out (FOMO)” in youngsters. They can also foster a negative body image and poor sleep habits.

Instagram is supposed to be friendly. So why is it making people so miserable?

“Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate.” — quote by an Instagrammer!

It’s a community dominated primarily by photos, and the primary method of interaction is double-tapping an image to like it. Nevertheless, for a growing number of users and mental health experts, Instagram is precisely the problem. The site encourages its users to present an upbeat, attractive image that others may find at best misleading and at worst harmful. If Facebook demonstrates that everyone is boring and Twitter proves that everyone is awful, Instagram makes you worry that everyone else is perfect except you.

In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health conducted a UK-wide survey of 14 to 24 year olds, asking them about the big five social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Users ranked how their use of the platforms affected everything from the quality of their sleep to their FOMO–the fear of missing out on what others are enjoying. Instagram came last, scoring particularly badly for its effects on sleep, body image, and FOMO.

“On the face of it, Instagram can look very friendly,” says RSPH’s Niamh McDade. “But that endless scrolling without much interaction doesn’t really lead to much of a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. You don’t really have control over what you’re seeing. And you quite often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet aren’t. That’s especially damaging to young men and women.”

The risk of developing an unhealthy body image is often highlighted, but McDade emphasises that this is just one aspect. “Some people may be looking at feeds full of cars, and it’s giving them anxiety and depression as they can’t afford them.”

But Instagram has always been about looking flawless. What changed? Among regular users, one event was cited time and again: the introduction of Instagram’s algorithmic timeline. It was one of the largest changes to the platform since it was bought by Facebook in 2012. Rather than presenting users with a cross-section of what the people they were following were up to at any given moment, Instagram began populating feeds with the most noteworthy posts from those accounts, often reaching back days or even weeks to pull in particularly compelling content.

In effect, the service began promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed. Unscrupulous creators started buying followers, likes, and comments in an attempt to fool the algorithm in order to generate “authentic” and “immediate” engagement.

This is the bane of this platform — the negative impact often negates all the positives that you may experience.