It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a social media service in possession of a reverse-chronological timeline, must be in want of screwing it up with “algorithms.” We saw it with Facebook in 2009; Twitter and Instagram held out until early 2016 but then followed suit. Facebook has been a lost cause for me for a long time—its algorithms’ inability to pick out the few items that would interest me are just a fact of life at this point. Twitter is still usable through third-party clients (although the company is doing its passive-aggressive best to do away with those too).
Instagram’s algorithm is more troubling for me. I’m a completionist, which means that on Instagram (and on Twitter and in my feed reader) I like to see every single item. This is really easy in the kind of feed reader I use, where you have to click on each item to mark it as read, or in a third-party Twitter client, where you can launch the app and just continue scrolling up from where you left off.
On Instagram, though, there is only one full-featured client—the Instagram app—and it always sends you back to the top of your feed when you reopen the app. With posts now being rearranged from session to session, when you launch the app you have to continue looking through photos until you finally reach one you’ve seen before, at which point you can be pretty sure you’ve seen everything in your feed.
I’m sure this model works fine for some people, especially if they’re following a ton of accounts and just want to dip into the firehose occasionally. For a completionist, though, Instagram is a daily source of irritation. I’m sure the algorithmic timeline is supposed to “increase my engagement,” but in reality it’s caused me to stop following some people so that my feed has fewer things to get through. There are another couple of accounts that I only follow in my feed reader via Granary, but I can’t like or comment on photos that way and I don’t count toward those accounts’ follower numbers.
Is that really what Instagram wants? Given the chance, I would at least glance at every single photo or video in my feed. With the screwy timeline, I’m cutting back just to make Instagram feel manageable. The company is testing an “all caught up” feature which seems like it will make this a little easier, provided that you do get caught up every two days. I think the real solution here is obvious, though, and I don’t know why Instagram is resisting it so strongly: just add an option to turn off the algorithmic timeline. Even if the app retained the silly behavior of starting at the top of the feed each time it opened, this would make getting caught up less of a chore and more of a delight.