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The age of the Instagram algorithm is here

This month Instagram becomes another social media platform with a newsfeed sorted by algorithm – what will this mean for the app and its users?

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    Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom at a news conference in 2012 announcing the Instagram Direct messaging feature. This month Instagram will see another big change as the company leaves behind the reverse-chronological newsfeed in favor of an algorithmic one.
    Mark Lennihan/AP
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Instagram, home of the reverse-chronological feed of photos, hashtags, and the occasional advertisement, revealed in March that it would start to structure its feed using an algorithm, like its parent company Facebook.

The announcement stirred debate among the 400 million active monthly users, although changes were not rolled out immediately.

But the time has now come. On Thursday, Instagram blogged that its “new way of ordering posts” will start this month, and while the blog post received numerous likes, many users left despairing comments threatening to deactivate their accounts.

Instagram spokespeople have not gone into depth about how exactly the algorithm filters users’ feeds, but they did give some outline for what factors are taken into account, ranging from what profile searches a user has done to the relationship between the user and the person or company he or she is following. Essentially newsfeeds will work across time differences and abundantly followed accounts in order to prioritize the posts that the algorithm figures the user is most interested in.

“On average, people miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed,” Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram, said in an interview with The New York Times. “What this is about is making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible.”

Facebook, which bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, began using an algorithm for its newsfeed in 2009, and even Twitter, which was ardently reverse-chronological since its inception in 2006, began placing select older Tweets at the top of users’ feeds this year. Yet the concept of the algorithm has drawn criticism from those who liken it to an echo-chamber in which you only see the things you have already stated interest in, or worse, where executives could skew content on a newsfeed to reinforce liberal or conservative viewpoints.

“Many people are not even aware of the degree to which these platforms are algorithmically curated for them,” writes Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, in a 2015 scholarly article where she examines a study conducted by scientists affiliated with Facebook.

“The study found that the algorithm suppresses the diversity of the content you see in your feed by occasionally hiding items that you may disagree with and letting through the ones you are likely to agree with,” Tufekci writes, pointing out features she says were not focused on in media coverage of the study. “Overall, this confirms what many of us had suspected: that the Facebook algorithm is biased towards producing agreement, not dissent.”

Facebook is much more of a forum for news and political conversation than social-oriented Instagram. According to a recent Pew study, 66 percent of Facebook users access news on the site, as compared to only 23 percent from Instagram. However, with Instagram home to myriad news organizations and 400 million active users, the addition of the algorithm is a notable moment in the history of social media and how it influences our cultural conversation.

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