Instagram’s Algorithm Hates Me And My Autism

Back in 2016, when Instagram announced it was Facebooking itself by abandoning the simple chronological feed and instituting an algorithm, they proclaimed that the move would “show the moments we believe you will care about the most”.

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.

At the time, most of the pushback focused on the natural suspicion that the changes were intended to cajole brands into purchasing Instagram ads in order to ensure people were seeing their posts. My own issues over the past two years have been different than the “simple” annoyance or irritation of having to deal with the change, although it took me awhile to recognize this as part of my autism.

For me, trying to use Instagram under the algorithm literally has been mentally painful.

(As I’ve been reading about autism, I keep coming across an apropos quote attributed to a Dr. Steven Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” So, fellow autistics, your mileage may vary.)

Much of my Instagram activity came as part of handling social media for The Belmont Goats, a nonprofit herd of “neighborhood attraction” goats here in Portland, Oregon. That activity wasn’t anything unusual: in addition to posting our own photos, I followed a lot of other goat accounts and liked things, occasionally adding a comment or two here and there. I also liked posts to our hashtag and geotag.

And then: Instagram algorithmic feed, meet my cognitive and behavioral rigidity.

Scrolling through a seemingly random landscape of posts made my brain hurt. To some this will sound like hyperbole, but while it might be somewhat metaphorical, it’s no exaggeration. Trying to keep up with all the goat accounts with which, to varying degrees, we’d built up relationships became a painful experience. No longer knowing for certain that what I’d encounter were new posts, then slightly older posts, then slightly more older posts — in fact, knowing for certain that this is not what I’d encounter — was like mental chaos. I couldn’t navigate. I didn’t know where or when I was in my interactions with the Instagram goats community.

Sometime last year, I stopped interacting altogether with Instagram from our nonprofit’s account except to post our own photos and announcements. The only exception is that I’m still able to like posts to our hashtag and geotag, as those feeds still offer chronological results.

(I should note that, for whatever reason, the chaos of the algorithmic feed seems far less pronounced in my personal account, which has seemed to remain more than 90% chronological. As such, I’ve still been able to use my own account without adverse effects.)

The beauty and benefit of the simple chronological feed is that it’s how everyone already experiences the world. Most people navigate that structure without even having to think about it. Engineering a social feed that deviates from such a near-universal way of understanding sequential events only makes sense, indeed, if the driving motivation is extorting brands rather than a commonly-useful user experience. It certainly doesn’t take into consideration the users for whom “chaos over chronology” is an experience they can’t handle at all.

Recently, Instagram announced a new round of changes to the feed that had some users crowing that the chronological feed was returning.

Alas, that isn’t what Instagram announced.

Based on your feedback, we’re also making changes to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first in feed. With these changes, your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about.

The chronological feed isn’t returning. It’s just that, by some entirely indeterminate or at least undisclosed amount, you’ll be somewhat more likely to encounter newer posts than older posts.

I’m not entirely sure what this gets Instagram, but it certainly doesn’t get users what they asked for. Instagram, and most other social media services, regularly argue that their algorithms are designed to offer posts which the service believes the user is most likely to be interested in, ignoring any and all users who are most interested in simply being able to scroll through a chronological representation of the lives of those they follow.

An algorithmic Instagram probably works for some people, but the chronological Instagram probably worked for nearly all people. Which approach should designers and engineers take?

I’ve no idea to what degree the new, still-not-chronological Instagram feed has been implemented. I haven’t looked. The impact the chaotic feed had on me was too severe. There are enough other things in my daily life which prompt anxiety attacks that I can’t cut out of my life. Instagram, as anything other than a broadcast medium, has had to go.

Come back to the chronological way in which we live our lives, Instagram, and me and my goats will come back to you.

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