Opinion

Damn Instagram, back at it again with the algorithm

Tym YeeIn this guest post Tym Yee discusses the content dilemma created by Instagram’s adaption of an algorithmic feed and why simply ‘creating better content’ isn’t enough.

I’m glad we made it through the week. For a second there I didn’t think humanity could do it. I mean, Instagram was changing to an algorithmic feed, which is, like, totally the end of the world, right?

Unless you’re a brand marketer, small business owner or social media influencer, this probably doesn’t mean too much to you. Like me, you’re just one of the innocent casualties caught in a feed stuffed to the edges with posts asking you to turn on notifications or else risk not seeing this particular beautiful person drinking C’s coconut water in Bali.

If indeed true, the shift marks a fundamental change in the way that users will connect and communicate with other users within the platform. With it will probably come lots of new ways we discover, browse, search and message others using Instagram, too. If your world is falling apart at the thought of this it’s a clear sign you’ve invested too much of your marketing efforts in one channel.stephclairesmith instagram water pic

Nonetheless, some are hailing this as a welcome change, one that’s going to force users and brands to start focusing on producing ‘quality content’. This is true in theory, but if Facebook is anything to go by, it will probably result in a pretty arbitrary, hodge-podge, luck-led content marketing free for all.

The problem with suggesting that ‘quality’ be the differentiating factor in the future is the fact that the group most disadvantaged by this shift already do produce great quality content. I’m referring to the influencers who have put hours of unpaid labour into perfecting their aesthetics, brand messaging and personas to professional standards.

If their engagements drop they obviously lose that cultural clout they’ve worked so hard for. Then what happens to their revenue models? And who will give them free coffee bean body scrubs?

Putting any trace elements of schadenfreude aside, if Instagram goes the way of Facebook these users along with small business owners stand to lose the most. After helping build up the platform with free content they’re now in a position where they may be propositioned by the economics of social media in the very near future: Either stand up, take this channel seriously and put some serious money into it. Or sit down and simply be satisfied with the platform as a regular user.  

This is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s not even the worst thing to come about from the shift from chronologic to algorithmic feeds.

To me, the piece underlying all this scandal with Instagram isn’t about how it will leave small players behind or mean only those with silver lined pockets will be able to ‘pay to play’ in the future. The story here is that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that anything other than monetization would occur on such a popular social media platform. Again.

Instead of being angry, shouldn’t users be smarter than this? Isn’t this just what social networks do?instagram logo

It’s hard to convince some social devotees that the channel they’ve loved and lauded with deep passion isn’t actually this democratising, levelling meritocracy where only quality content cuts through. Same goes when trying to convince the sceptics that Instagram isn’t doing anything that is immoral or sneaky. It’s more complex than that.

Users need to remember that they themselves are powering the algorithm. When you like something, share something, double tap it, follow, whatever, you’re tipping your hat to that user, helping them appear ‘better’ than their competitors.

Also, keep in mind that Instagram was once a start up and it’s now simply going through a growth phase which so many of its own entrepreneurial users could only ever dream of. The ultimate goal of a social media network is to reach a user tipping point and then sell this audience in various forms to marketers. This may be a contentious claim, saying money is the “ultimate goal”, but with stakeholder business interests comes revenue targets.

For the broader community, however, this uproar may represent a positive step away from the blind faith we put in social media.

When we put all of our eggs into the social basket and build up large audiences on external platforms we give away a large portion of control over our distribution. Instead, we should be building our own digital infrastructures.

So bloggers need to focus on growing their newsletters and Instagrammers need better websites. If you want to take your brand seriously, be it corporate, small business or personal you need to first get ready to play the algorithm to your advantage, and secondly to diversify your media.

At this stage it looks like social media will always play a part in helping you to connect to your audience, it just shoudn’t be the only way, or maybe even the primary way.

If you get this straight now you won’t be so shocked when SnapChat, Medium and whatever other social media networks eventually follow suit.

Tym Yee is a writer at Optus Entertainment.

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