The internet is abuzz with a tantalizing rumor: that Instagram is testing the return of its reverse-chronological feed. Could it be that, instead of organizing our friends’ posts with algorithms, the glory days in which we saw things simply in the order that they were actually posted are returning? Sadly, no.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and most recently Snapchat have all strayed from their original organizational logic of a time-based stream of updates and opted to rearrange posts by opaque measurements instead.
Why algorithmic feeds?
The consensus is that it allows these social networks to optimize user engagement by weighing different posts differently. Think about how you always see when a friend has a new baby on Facebook, but you might have missed six months of complaints about Mondays and millennial pink. Higher engagement, in turn, drives advertising opportunity. The more that our eyes are stuck on the page, and the longer we hover over certain stories, the greater the opportunity these platforms have to thumbprint our personalities to serve us more “relevant” ads.
The algorithmic feed allows a self-perpetuating cycle of more engagement leads to more ad revenue leads to more investment in the algorithms to generate more engagement leads to more investment in the ads. How well does it all work? Facebook’s ever-growing profits per user are probably the best indication we’ll get.
However, many users are vehemently pushing back against the algorithmic feed. People are spending less time on Facebook than they did a year ago.There was a 1 million Snapchatters petition against its latest algorithmic design updates. We’ve watched the rise of the alt-social networks like Ello, and more recently Vero, that promise to put the user first and profiteering design decisions second.
The latest wave of the protest has taken the form of wishful thinking. A few users believed that maybe, Instagram was testing the old feed again. Even though such wasn’t the case, it became an instantmedia sensation all the same.
In some ways, this user discontent signals an opportunity for competitors to gain a foothold in the market–if not with billions of users to take on Facebook and Instagram, at least with a few million users who pine for the old days when the internet was a simpler place. The more that the big social networks prove that the reverse-chronological timeline is dead and never coming back, the more users demand its return.