UPDATE May 3, 2017 — Instagram is experiencing dramatic and rapid growth. Instagram Stories has skyrocketed in popularity, and Instagram’s adding new users faster than ever before. In an effort to keep this article as accurate as possible, we’ve updated it to reflect the newest figures from Instagram. We’ve preserved the original text of the article and added clearly marked updates beneath select passages with new and relevant information.
Instagram began as a place to share photos. In fact, in the beginning, it was only square photos. And though aspects of Instagram changed as it grew (the ability to send direct messages, the layout, sharing options, filters, effects, and more), Instagram still mainly did just one thing: Allow users to share photos.
Ostensibly, that’s still Instagram’s raison d’être. But there’s a whole lot more to it now. Adding over 100 million users in the last six months of 2016 to bring the platform total to over 600 million users, Instagram is huge now. It’s full of new features and new users, and it’s not just a photo sharing platform anymore. Instagram’s becoming the place where people go to share all manner of visual content via features like Stories, Live, and Galleries. And on feed-driven platforms like Instagram, more content means more to sift through.
UPDATE: Instagram now has over 700 million users, up from 600 million in December. Users are flocking to the app and Instagram is adding users faster than ever.
Instagram has always been easy to use. With an interface that’s intuitive and simple, figuring out how to use Instagram has never been difficult. It’s finding specific pieces of content quickly that’s always been the challenge, and so Instagram’s strength has always been in-the-moment.
A well-curated feed would, theoretically, produce a new but equally relevant experience every time. It would be different every time, a tour of aesthetically pleasing things you’re interested in that’s new each time you open the app. Photos of your brother’s dog, nebulas captured by the Hubble telescope, and summit shots from Mt. Kenya could all co-exist in your feed. And to an extent, they do.
But as Instagram got bigger, their co-existence became a little less comfortable. At some point, you were seeing lunch photos from strangers instead of pictures of your niece. It’s the same problem that every social network inevitably runs into: The problem of too much content. The more users you follow, the less you feel like you really see (or, alternatively, the more time you spend scrolling).
To its credit, Instagram knows this. When it found that users were missing around 70% of the content in their chronological feeds, it sought to make content easier to find and more relevant. That’s why it implemented an algorithm designed to help users see more of the content they care about first.
The algorithm certainly re-ordered the timeline (and made a lot of people pretty angry), but there are ways in which it hasn’t necessarily fixed the problem. It’s just changed what content we miss. Now that there’s more content to see, there’s even more to miss, and it’s particularly noticeable with Stories, which live at the top of users’ feeds.
When Stories first launched, it wasn’t widely used, which meant that users didn’t have to swipe for long to feel like they’d seen what they needed to see. But Stories has over 150 million daily active users now and rivals Snapchat, which means that a number of people in any given feed, from celebrities and photographers to personal friends, are using Stories. More stories means more swiping, and at present, that top bar feature isn’t particularly well-suited to serious content navigation.
Instagram seemed to realize that too, though, so it rolled out a new feature last week that displays Stories in the feed. Sort of.
This new feature allows users to watch Stories in their feeds. If an account has a Story available, its profile photo appears in the feed with what Instagram calls a “colorful story ring” around it, just like it does in the top bar where Stories currently live. Users can tap on the photo and watch the story without leaving the feed, then resume scrolling when the Story’s played through.
On the surface, it’s a small change. Just a ring around a profile photo. But its impact is actually pretty significant, as it signals a more integrated approach to Stories. The ability to watch Stories from the feed makes Stories more discoverable and has the power to add context to photos.
For example, if a photographer uploads and shares a picture from the Seregeti and creates a related Story that followers can find right from their feeds as soon as they see the picture, it creates an experience that exists across multiple types of content but is available right from the feed.
Instagram is doing what it can to help users find the most useful and relevant content on a platform that’s growing and bursting at the seams with visual media. But ultimately, there’s not much it can do about the problem of too much content. It’s something that plagues every social network, from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube and Pinterest. There’s more to see than can ever be seen, and algorithms can only do so much.
Anyone who uses Facebook, Pandora, Google, Spotify, or any of another handful of algorithm-driven services knows that algorithms have two inherent weaknesses: They don’t really understand context, and they’re not neutral.
Shaped by human bias but incapable of understanding the very human and messy ways in which we prioritize and process information internally, an algorithm is always going to be an imperfect solution. It’s the double-edged sword of success. Platforms need people, but the more people there are on a platform, the harder it is to keep experiences personal, valuable, and relevant.
Instagram’s trying. Pushing Stories to the home feed is a step in the right direction and represents both recognition of the problem and an attempt to remedy it. But as Instagram moves forward and, presumably, continues to grow, it won’t be new features that determine Instagram’s continued success and dominance, but its ability to keep its interface clean, simple, and discoverable.