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Here’s how Instagram’s feed algorithm actually works

The company has been getting complaints from users who miss the old, reverse-chronological timeline.

Young women sitting on risers gather around a mobile screen. Drew Angerer / Getty

It’s been more than two years since Instagram started using a software algorithm to power its feed — which means that posts show up based on what Instagram thinks you want to see, not just the newest posts first.

Ever since then, though, the company has been getting complaints from users who miss the old, reverse-chronological timeline. The company knows it’s a popular request. Instagram hears you!

So will it give users the option to revert back to seeing posts in the reverse order in which they’re shared?

“We’re not thinking about this at this time,” said Julian Gutman, the product lead for Instagram feed, in a recent press briefing with journalists intended to explain how Instagram’s feed actually works.

Instagram has reasons for that decision. The most important, in my opinion, is that users spend more time on the app with an algorithmic feed than a reverse chronological feed, a spokesperson confirmed. It’s not known exactly how much more time, but that’s great for Instagram’s business: More time spent means more ads seen, which means more revenue for Instagram.

But Instagram frames it differently: People spend more time in the app because the algorithmic feed means people see more important posts that they would otherwise miss. With the algorithmic feed, Instagram claims people see 90 percent of posts from their “friends and family,” compared to around 50 percent with the reverse chronological feed.

“Friends and family” is a subjective term that Instagram doesn’t really define, but you should think of it as the most important people — or even brands — in your life. Instagram thinks it can detect who these people are based on certain signals, like how often you comment on their posts or if you set up notifications for their posts. It also uses some data tied back to users’ Facebook accounts to help determine these relationships, Gutman said, though he declined to share what data that was.

The size of the “friends and family” group might be different for each user, but these are the people Instagram works to prioritize in your feed. It can do this with an algorithmic feed, but not with a reverse chronological one.

Still, you’d think it would be simple enough to give users the option to switch between feed types.

“As we’ve dug in more and tried to understand why people ask for chronological, it’s not a universal thing,” Gutman added. “It isn’t a single reason that people want chrono, and I think what we’re really trying to understand is what are those different frustrations that people have and how can we build that in to their personalized feed experience.”

The point being that there isn’t one simple fix to complaints about Instagram’s algorithm. Much like how the algorithm gives everyone a different feed, everyone has a different complaint — and simply giving people the old feed doesn’t really address them.

A few other common questions (and answers) about Instagram’s feed:

Are people posting less to the feed because of Instagram Stories?

We don’t know because Instagram won’t say, but the idea that Stories may be cannibalizing the Instagram feed is one that has been making the rounds lately. “While we don’t break it down, I can tell you that sharing on Instagram overall is up,” Gutman said.

Does Instagram’s algorithm favor videos over photos?

It could prioritize videos if Instagram believes that you, the user, prefer videos. But “feed ranking doesn’t universally favor the video or photo format,” Gutman said.

Does the algorithm prioritize posts from users who use Stories or Instagram Live more often?

“No, we don’t favor accounts that use different parts of the app more than others. The only way to get your content higher ranked is to produce great content,” said Christina d’Avignon, a product designer for Instagram feed. Of course, there are other ways to increase the likelihood people find your post, like adding hashtags or a location tag, which means your post will appear in more search results.

Can you be down-ranked for posting too much in Instagram?

“No, we don’t down-rank people for posting [frequently]. We do make sure your feed feels diverse so we may break up posts,” d’Avignon said, who added that people do this less than they used to now that Instagram has a feature where you can share multiple photos at once.

Are verified users or business accounts ranked higher in feed than regular users?

No, according to d’Avignon. “We treat everyone the same,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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