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3 things i've learned about the instagram algorithm from running several accounts

I posted my first picture on Instagram on June 14th, 2012. It's a complete testament to the aesthetic of Instagram from five years ago: the photo has a silly, decorative frame, the filter is black & white, and its a selfie featuring the once-iconic duck face.

Instagram spoke to all of us from the beginning - a siren call to aesthetics, a technology-era tribute to scrapbooking and collaging. The trends were a perfect palimpsest of personal commemoration throughout the ages. The power to perfectly express the mood or vibe of any given moment with a filter, a caption, and a location tag, paired with the ability to catalog and anthologize those snapshots into a narrative. 

So much has changed since then that it feels more like ten years ago than five. It speaks to the exponential growth of social media that what was once an iPhone only (ah, the good old days) photoblogging app is now at the literal epicenter of social media marketing and advertising. You could even argue that Facebook's acquisition of Instagram (for $300 million in cash, and another 2.7 billion in Facebook stock) is a key pillar of how Facebook holds on to relevancy all these years later. 

As it's grown, however, it's easy to feel like those human impulses towards commemoration are being sold and packaged. Capitalism reigns, as always, and it follows us wherever we go. In truth, it's nothing without us, despite its efforts to prove otherwise. And it's that note that brings me to the real topic of this post - the new Instagram algorithm.

I'll start by saying I don't know much about it, but since that's a boat that a lot of us find ourselves in, I'm going to take the time to report some trends and features that I've noticed as I work with the platform in both a personal and professional capacity.

1.) THE PURPOSE OF THE ALGORITHM IS TO BALANCE USER IMPULSE AND CORPORATE INTERESTS

Put simply, from a user-standpoint, the more accounts you follow, the more normal your feed will seem.

My personal account has been active since 2012. Out of the 729 users I follow, only about 10% are Verified Accounts. I have 968 followers, about 45% of whom are accounts of people who I know and recognize. I notice the changes in the algorithm the most when scrolling through my personal feed. I never miss a post from Beyonce or Khloe Kardashian, but it'll take days for me to see the post my best friend put up of the two of us from the weekend. This is my guess as to why. Khloe Kardashian's engagement rate completely eclipses that of my best friend. The algorithm "incorrectly" assumes that I'd rather see her than my friend. And because on my personal account, only 10% of users I follow draw that much attention, the imbalance completely skews my feed.

Inversely, on my ASC account, and other non-personal accounts I manage, my feed feels more like what I remember from 2012. I follow over 1k accounts from @ascdaily, and more like 90% of those users are Verified. Because of this, I've noticed that Instagram seems to know that I don't actually care what wig Kylie Jenner is wearing on any particular day - because those verified accounts seem to cancel each other out. When I switch accounts to @ascdaily from @allenagrams, I'm more likely to see all the posts I missed from my friends and family.

The tradeoff is simple: @ASCdaily is following a ton of high-engagement accounts and increasing the worth of Instagram advertising overall. @allenagrams is mostly following smaller accounts, so the algorithm forces the big accounts onto my feed in an attempt to manipulate my decisions. 

2.) IT NO LONGER MATTERS WHAT TIME YOU POST

Social media managers everywhere, bear with me. Because of the algorithm manipulating the timeline, chronology is now completely immaterial. It used to be that the best times to post were governed by agreed upon assumptions as to when the majority of people would be looking down at their phone uninterrupted, scrolling leisurely through the timeline. A lot has changed, and its not just the algorithm. It's safe to assume that anyone in your target demographic who is looking at their phone, is looking at their phone MOST of the time. Add in features like "stories" where people are encouraged to post snapshots of what they're doing at any given moment, and the myth of "downtime" is completely eviscerated. I recently saw a great meme where someone reminisced to the time when we used to type "brb" - the joke was that we don't anymore, because we never actually disconnect. We don't have to "be right back" because we're never leaving. 

Furthermore, Instagram is fully globalized now. "Post on Tuesday evenings" doesn't only mean "Tuesday evening." It could be "Tuesday morning" "Wednesday morning" or "Two days from Tuesday" depending on the location of your viewers and the way the algorithm impacts their individual feeds.

All that matters now is consistency in posts. I advise all of my clients to choose a day/time for themselves that depends on their own behaviors, not on the number of eyes glued to the timeline at any given time. Every couple of weeks, we assess the results, and make any adjustments. I also advise symmetry and aesthetic, so that no matter when eyes land on your post, the content is distinct enough to engender immediate recognition, and when someone taps on your name to see your entire feed, it's aesthetically pleasing and memorable.

3.) HASHTAGS HAVE CHANGED FOR THE BETTER, (BUT THEY'VE ALSO STAYED THE SAME)

Hashtags are simultaneously the most and least confusing aspect of social media. How did an octothorpe gain so much influence!? Most of the users I talk to really have no clue how to use them. Hashtags are simple - it's a way of organizing your content so that people can find it if they're looking for it (#webdesign, #foodie, #DUH!) Because of the way the algorithm manipulates the timeline based on engagement, #tags are more important than ever. They also bring groups together and appease the human impulse to join a conversation - (#instadaily, #foodstagram, #dogsofinstagram). 

Here's how they've changed: Hashtags have evolved from simplified categories into colloquial aphorisms. Instead of merely hashtagging "food", we hashtag #instafood, #foodporn, or #foodislife. The colloquial tags can be as simple as #mondaymotivation, or as specific as #flashesofdelight (one of my favorites). Instead of only putting #salon, or #eyebrows we put #salonlife or #browsonfleek. See the difference? We hashtag the way we talk, similar to the way in which we caption the way we talk.

Another change I've perceived is that there's almost zero shame in using as many hashtags as you want. THe algorithm completely necessitates the use of tags to make sure your content is in front of the right audience, so its perfectly acceptable to throw them on and increase engagement. I say almost, however, because the "how" of using hashtags is tragically lost on some accounts I've come across.

Place your hashtags in the first comment, so they don't disrupt the aesthetic of your posts on the timeline. What matters is the content, and a splay of tags can really distract from that.

I'd love to hear your own thoughts on the algorithm, if any of this is helpful, or if you've had a completely opposite experience with the platform! We're all in(sta) this together, after all.

 

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