On 15 March 2016, Instagram announced that users’ feeds will soon be populated by an algorithm rather than in the current chronological fashion, which means it will become more like Facebook’s News Feed.

Does this mean that we will not see all the posts from users we ‘Follow’? What is the point of ‘Following’ users now? How will this change affect a typical user’s habit of using Instagram?

I enjoy the feeds from both Instagram and Facebook — one shows everything I am interested in while the latter shows me a variety of news and gossips, even if it’s from people whom I am only mildly interested in.

In a previous experiment, I stayed away from Instagram for a month and one of the first things I noticed was how frequently I used to check out Instagram — once every few hours. It was a a habit, perhaps even an addiction, because I felt compelled to check my Feed(dependence), if not it left me uncomfortable(withdrawal), to an extent that I relied on other social media platforms as substitutes.

Borrowing Nir Eyal’s concepts on habit-forming products, my Instagram-checking habit can be described as the constant checking of Feeds (action) so as to stay in the loop (reward) of what my friends were eating, where they were travelling to and other happenings in their lives.

After a one month hiatus, I was effectively out of this loop. I took half an hour and only scrolled through five days worth of posts, and the other 25 days will forever remain a blank.

In that sense, Instagram’s new implementation would “solve” this problem of “missing out”. Users who constantly check their social media updates because of their fear of missing out (FOMO) can now check Instagram anytime without missing out.

If it indeed solves that problem, wouldn’t it be creating a hole for itself?

The new algorithm-based feed will be cutting out the need for constant refreshing of the Feed.

Does this mean the death of Instagram, because it curbs the habit of constantly refreshing the Feed?Unlikely. Habits arise from us repeatedly doing something. A typical user will likely maintain his habitual usage of Instagram, except that the constant checking for the latest updates will be replaced by the constant checking for relevant posts.

By having an algorithm based on “your relationship with the person and timeliness of the post”, Instagram is indeed redefining relevance for you. Assuming a highly effective algorithm that works perfectly, increased relevance would mean a greater reward for the user, which further reinforces the habit loop. Instagram might become more addictive than before.

When I concluded my one-month experiment, I thought I saw the end of Instagram.

For users like me who do not ‘Explore’ much outside of our friends, our Feeds are rather homogenous — food, travel, or people. If  you stayed away from Instagram long enough, you would come back to an unacquainted app, thus making it easier to keep the app at bay, leading to declined Instagram use.

For me, I felt fine being out of the social loop, and I was less likely to post on Instagram after the experiment ended.

Over time, if more users cut down on their Instagram use (both browsing and posting), the ‘rewards’ from using Instagram would decrease for the rest of the users, and it will become a downwards spiral. However, the end of Instagram does not mean that people will stop consuming social media totally. Instagram will probably be replaced by a more effective social media platform.

With the new update, Instagram will become a more powerful social media. Our Instagram Feeds will be composed of a greater variety of posts that are more relevant than before. Based on B. F. Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory, the new implementation would mean a greater reward (from viewing more relevant posts) and a variable schedule (less predictability in types of posts), which will increase users’ likelihood of using Instagram to attain the rewards.

It is impressive to see how apps innovate to stay ahead of competition, and I believe that this change might just prolong Instagram’s presence.

Zhi Han

about Zhi Han

As a communications and psychology major, I have been conditioned to constantly observe and appreciate people's interactions with each other and with different mediums. It excites me to figure the intent of a message, and to see a well-crafted design delight its audience.

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