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It seems wherever you turn in the digital marketing world these days there is some popular app updating its timeline to an algorithmic one.
Apparently this is what users really want, you see, although judging by the reactions of said users every time one of the announcements is made you’d be forgiven for assuming those Silicon Valley meeting rooms exist within actual bubbles.
Instagram is the latest network to announce it will be testing out a new timeline system that shows users' posts based on what it thinks they want to see, rather than what they actually want to see, because obviously it knows them better than they know themselves.
Of course I’m being slightly facetious here, because when am I ever not? But it does seem like the trend towards algorithmic timelines on social media completely goes against the desires of the users.
And forget about monetisation or anything else. If your users aren’t happy you simply don’t have a viable long-term business, as Twitter is beginning to realise.
The reactions so far…
Please don’t take my word for it (or anything for that matter) – people are genuinely pissed off about this move.
Here are some of my favourite reactions so far…
Instagram is moving to a non-chronological timeline pic.twitter.com/fvzQ9zEuI8— David (@itisdxvid) March 15, 2016
I dislike all social media being turned into a popularity contest. Instagram's new algorithm based timeline will do just that— Calum McSwiggan (@CalumMcSwiggan) March 16, 2016
Somebody actually started a petition about it. I mean I can see why people are annoyed but even I’m not that sad… (am I?)
And here’s why I personally think it’s a terrible idea…
1. It makes brands pay, but at the expense of the user
Instagram can claim it’s doing this for the users all it wants, but those of us working in this industry know full well it is all about improving the site’s ad business.
As with Facebook, the majority of brands will now have to pay if they want a good chance of being seen.
The likes of Go-Pro or National Geographic are likely not to suffer too much as a result of the change, but others will definitely be forced into a situation where the only way to maintain their current performance on the site will be to pay for ads.
This is fine, in principle. If your content is genuinely interesting your reward will be having it seen by people with less ad investment needed. Seems fair enough.
Except it’s not fair enough, because in order for Instagram to squeeze more ad money out of brands in this way it is shoe-horning in a change that the majority of users simply do not want.
I’ll say it again: never mind monetisation. If you don’t have users you don’t have anything to monetise, so always, always, put them first.
2. Instagram is supposed to be instant
No seriously, the clue is right there in the name: Insta. As in: instant.
And this is the same point I and many other made about Twitter when it announced a similar update a couple of months back.
A massive part of the appeal on Instagram and other social media sites is the real-time nature of the content. You can scroll through your feed and discover things you wouldn’t necessarily have seen otherwise.
Destroying that element seems utterly backwards given that it was such a big contributor to Instagram’s success in the first place.
3. Being more like Facebook is not a good thing
Obviously this Instagram change is heavily influenced by Facebook, given that the latter owns the former.
But why do they have to be the same? I would much prefer Instagram to retain its own identity because it is a completely different network with its own unique demographic of users.
And while Facebook might be doing well now, it doesn’t wash with the younger generation, and they will ultimately play a huge part in which social media remain relevant and which become the next MySpace.
The fact is, generation Z – those born after 1995 – are ditching Facebook for apps like Snapchat. Around a quarter of 13-17-year-olds left Facebook last year.
It therefore hardly seems a good time to make a social media site more like Facebook and less like the real-time nature of Snapchat et al.
Conclusion: money first, users second
I have made this argument time and time again (this is the third time in this post alone), but social media sites need to learn that users must come first and advertisers second.
Yes, you need to make money, but without users you literally have nothing, and though I’m sure many have tried even the shrewdest businessperson would struggle to monetise nothing.
So my message to Instagram is this: keep your own identity, don’t become an image-based Facebook, and for God’s sake think of the balance between profit and UX.
Short term gains of the former will not negate the damage to your business if you don’t think hard enough about the latter.
What do you think?
Are you in favour of Instagram's new algorithmic timeline or against, and how will it impact the way you market on the site? Let me know in the comments below.