Instagram recently announced the inevitable – it will transition away from its pure, lovable, chronological feed to an algorithmically calculated feed. According to Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), this change is for you. The official blog post announcing the change begins, “You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds. As Instagram has grown, it’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.”

I love Instagram. It is pure. It is simple. It is habit-forming. It is private (if you want it to be), and it usually contains the very best picture of the day from everyone you follow. It is special because the feed is chronological, which means that pictures show up in the order they are posted. You need to scroll down to catch up, but absolutely every Instagram user knows what to expect from the service – and for about 400 million unique monthly users, it’s simply awesome! Err … was? No, is … and will continue to be.

The Idea

After the algorithm is fully deployed, the posts you have a high probability of wanting to see will show up at the top of your feed. There is all kinds of goodness in this simple idea. My wife constantly posts pictures of our cat doing the things cats do best (usually with clever captions). I’m not sure I want them at the top of my feed every time I open Instagram, but considering how close relations will be mathematically scored, I fear I am doomed to years of front-and-center cat pics. On the other hand, posts that the algorithm scores as “less interesting to you” (whatever that content may be) will be demoted or ultimately not shown.

Who Benefits?

  • Instagram’s advertiser sales business. Instagram will become pay for play. When the transition is complete, if you want your content to show up, you will need to get out your checkbook.
  • My wife’s cat pics are safe. (Ugh!)
  • Brands with super-awesome, blow-your-mind content. If you have cutting-edge, amazing pics and your brand is already super famous, you’re good (for now).
  • Content providers with something to say. Exclusive, relevant content will score well and probably show up (or at least survive).

Who Gets Hurt?

No one important. Spammers and low-quality, high-quantity content mongers are going to have a tough time (unless they pay). Brands you really don’t care about are going to struggle to find you (unless they pay).

Oh, and Twitter. Once Instagram is algorithmically programmed, the algorithm can be adjusted. Anyone for trending topics? If Instagram can leverage Facebook’s knowledge (and there’s no reason to believe it can’t), it will be well positioned to hit Twitter where it hurts.

It’s Mostly About the Benjamins

Instagram is widely considered to be the last of the big organic social media platforms. That’s important because in practice, a great Instagram post can (and will) go viral. After the algorithm, organically viral posts will still be possible, but not probable – unless you pay.

Big Social – Just Another Media Channel

Free social at scale is an endangered species (this is not news). But with the Instagram transition, it is more endangered than ever.

There’s really no other way to think about it. After this transition, anyone who tells you that they can leverage organic social media for you is simply lying. Earned social media is all but over. Now, you will have to calculate ROI against a social media buy with all the academic and fiscal rigor used for other pay media channels. Should you pay for a “like?” What is it worth? Will your social media buy drive business outcomes? Will it extend unduplicated reach or complement or enhance other key performance indicators (KPIs)? If not, why do you have a whole department doing social media posts all day?

The Bottom Line

While it’s true that the only people who like change are babies in wet diapers, the Instagram algorithm really is bad news only for brands without appropriate media budgets or a good understanding of the medium. For everyone else, the algorithm is going to help make your Instagram experience better and more emotionally satisfying. Mark Zuckerberg would not have it any other way!

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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