Social media is a relatively new area for development, and apps are constantly clamoring to offer better, more unique functions to their customers. When new apps break into the scene, they usually offer something truly novel, that no other mainstream app has offered before, but eventually, they settle into a rhythm of mutual influence, where they “normalize” (for lack of a better word) and start integrating functions present in other apps to make a more mainstream, approachable model.
The bottom-line effect from this phenomenon is that when one social media platform comes out with a new feature, another is sure to come out with their own version before too long. That was the case with Twitter’s new content algorithm, as Instagram is now coming out with its own version of the update—and it could have a lasting effect on the social media world in general.
Twitter’s New Content Algorithm
Twitter announced its new timeline changes back in February on its official blog, and the change was committed shortly thereafter. By default, Twitter used to display posts purely in chronological order—users’ timelines were filled with their followed accounts’ most recent updates at the top, with older updates populating below in descending order. After the update, a new algorithm selectively curates posts to appear in an order based on perceived relevance, not dissimilar to how Facebook newsfeeds currently display content.
User reactions were polarizing at first, with some proclaiming the update as a massive step forward and others insisting that it took away some of what made Twitter special in the first place. Users can opt out of the feature easily enough, however, by changing one simple option in their account settings.
(Image Source: Twitter)
The Instagram Update
Thanks to Instagram’s currently higher popularity, especially with younger users, it made an even bigger impact when it announced a content algorithm change in March. According to Instagram’s formal announcement, users only end up seeing about 30 percent of their newsfeeds under the old model (pure chronological listings), forcing the company to assert that users are often missing out on some of the posts that would matter the most to them.
Instagram, like Twitter, doesn’t get into the weeds explaining what their new content algorithm is or how it works, other than the fact that it will “select” the most relevant, appropriate content for users on an individual basis, and order that content using a blend of different factors. No posts will be removed from the timeline, so users will still have access to the same material they would otherwise—just in a different order.
As with Twitter’s announcement, reactions have been mixed. Many users, companies, and organizations have heralded the update as a positive change (and a long time coming), but other users are in an uproar. Some have even taken to starting a petition to force Instagram to keep its purely chronological update.
(Image Source: Change.org)
Despite the noise, it’s highly unlikely that Instagram is going to change its mind.
Fears Over Selected Content
Part of the reason there’s significant controversy over Twitter’s and Instagram’s decisions is a perceived loss of control by users. Chronological order was completely unbiased, and unaffected by any ulterior motives. Now that some extra layer is influencing how content is ordered, users are afraid that they’ll be manipulated by the companies in charge, at least to a certain degree. Few would outspokenly argue that there’s some grand hidden conspiracy by social media companies to brainwash or toy with their user bases (after all, that’s where they make their money), user manipulation isn’t completely unheard of.
Back in 2014, Facebook revealed that it intentionally altered the Facebook timelines of more than half a million users, selectively filling user timelines with either strongly positive or strongly negative pieces of content to see whether users would have a similarly strong positive or negative reaction. It’s doubtful that the naysayers of these updates are worried about being emotionally manipulated in the same way, but this is the type of fear that permeates both user bases. Users have grown accustomed to things like Facebook newsfeeds and Google search results being sorted by an outside authority’s perceived relevance, but when such a change comes to a pre-existing unbiased organization, the dissonance becomes clear.
The Normalization of Social Apps
Users and marketers should also be conscious of this effect of “normalization” in social apps. While each “rising star” social app begins in a niche role, with specific polarizing features, as they gain more users and approach mainstream integration, they tend to gravitate toward a standardized formula. These new content algorithms are just one example—also consider how SnapChat has made itself less private with retrievable snaps, how Pinterest has turned itself into a kind of eCommerce hybrid, and how LinkedIn gradually inches closer and closer to Facebook in terms of look and feel.
The Future of Social Media Competition
There are a few key takeaways to learn from this wave of content algorithm changes. As a marketer, you need to make yourself aware of the possible changes social media platforms hold for the future, and what’s important to the users who rely on them. Be prepared for increased functionality geared toward user relevance, including possible controls on the company/organization side of things. As these changes roll out, it’s important to shift your focus from timing to even higher relevance—and of course, always keep watch for new trends on the horizon.