We like to think that we’re in charge of all this stuff, that everything appearing on our screens has been chosen by us and that we alone have the power to change it. Any suggestion that the service we’re using might be about to reduce that power seems to make us disproportionately furious.
Instagram’s recent announcement that it plans to follow Facebook and Twitter‘s lead by shifting to an “algorithmic timeline” (in which you’re more likely to see popular posts from your pals rather than everything in strict chronological order) has caused untold fury: The hashtag #boycottinstagram was used by thousands of people (on, er, Instagram) in order to make their feelings clear. “Keep Instagram Chronological!” has been the battle cry, a plea to protect our God-given right to scroll through a load of pictures that are probably a bit dull.
Algorithmic timelines are easily characterized as evil. There’s a strong case for everything that we post online to have the same likelihood of being seen, and algorithms evidently work against that by giving prominence to things that are popular. They force us to up our game: If our pictures, puns and pronouncements are going to reach an audience, then they have to be good, and the idea that an algorithm is doing the judging feels inherently unfair.
Instagram has been quick to reassure users that “when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it” – but this neatly sums up the problem: I couldn’t care less about seeing said puppy, but the algorithm is going to show me the puppy anyway, because other people like the puppy. Before, seeing a puppy in my timeline was all about chance and timing. Now, Instagram will be putting it there.
If you’re in Instagram‘s shoes, however, it makes perfect sense. The more people joining the service and the more people we follow, the more swamped we are with images: CEO Kevin Systrom estimates that users miss about 70% of content, and he just wants the 30% they do see to be better.
It’s that perennial conflict between encouraging us to spend more time using the app and stopping us becoming bored with it. Weighting our feeds towards pictures that we might like to see would seem like a no-brainer – and it also increases revenue for Instagram, as it forces brands to pay for placement in the feed rather than merely relying on posts cropping up chronologically.
The truth is that we’re lazy. As we immerse ourselves deeper into social media, the prospect of trying to personally curate everything becomes a monumental drag. Outsourcing control to an algorithm would seem like a perfect solution, but resistance always runs weirdly high.
Of course, we’ve proved time after time that we hate any kind of change being forced upon us online, even if that change is supposedly for our own good. As the former chief technical officer of Facebook, Bret Taylor, said of its shift to an algorithmic feed: “It was always the thing that people said that they didn’t want, but demonstrated that they did by every conceivable metric.” Perhaps we’ve reached the stage where computers know what we want far better than we do.