Back in the halcyon days when Media Are Plural was a radio show, circa 2013-14, I made some shows about the positive aspects of social media. This was in the height of Tumblr, before Twitter and Facebook became a cesspool of disinformation (although Facebook was garbage even back then), a time when Instagram hadn’t started cribbing functions from other platforms, people were actually using Snapchat, algorithm wasn’t a buzzword, and Vine not only existed but was the hot new thing. I saw the potential these platforms offered as a creative outlet for self-expression and connecting with friends. You could still view posts in chronological order!
Oh, how things change.
By the time I turned Media Are Plural into a blog in 2016, I had joined the ranks of social-media haters, and often took cheapshots at platforms for Easy Content. Things have not changed much since then.
I’m not here to harp on the same old failings that haven’t been fixed, though. I want to talk about a specific problem on a specific platform: Instagram’s Explore feed.
This is, I assume, a problem unique to people like me who do next to nothing on Facebook and who only use Insta to like other people’s posts. (I post on average once every two months.) Please get in touch if your experience is different, I’d love to hear from you and compare notes. But for now, welcome to the hell that is algorithmically selected content chosen for someone about whom the algorithm knows almost nothing. Here is my journey, from when I started paying attention to present.
Early 2019: I do not know these babies
I’m at a point in my life where a ton of people I know are having kids, and they’re posting about those kids on Insta. I like seeing these posts, because their kids are cute and seeing young happy families reminds me of fond memories of when I was a kid. I use social media mainly to stay up to date and in touch with my friends, since I have a ton of them from university and Tumblr who live no where close to me. Them having a child is the sort of major life event I want to ensure I know about.
Instagram took note. However, its genius algorithm saw I was liking all these babies and started serving me mommy-blog content en masse. Soon it was all posts of other people’s babies – people I did not know. I guess it figured I was a baby enthusiast.
You can imagine why this was the moment when I started taking note of what the algorithm was serving me. The mommy-blog stuff was weird but fine, and I see what it was going for, but I found it incredibly creepy that it was giving me posts of random children. After I noticed this, I started changing my behaviour and interacting with way fewer posts of my friends’ kids. So if you have a kid and you wonder why I never like your photos any more, this is why.
Mid-to-late 2019 and occasionally ongoing: The farm animal months
After clicking “Not Interested” on hundreds of people’s babies, the algorithm pivoted. I have no idea why it settled on farm animals, with a heavy emphasis on cows, but it did. And this I can get behind. Cows are lovely animals, and some of the hairy ones are quite cute. I’m also partial to sheep and donkeys. For once, it had got me.
There was only one problem: It got me on accident. It’s true I like farm animals, but there’s no way it could have known that. I follow zero farm animal accounts, and actually no animal-based accounts at all. I don’t search up farm animals when I’m not on Insta either, so it’s not grabbing this info in secret while I’m browsing the web. Even if outrageous conspiracy theories about social media companies being able to read your mind were true, I doubt they would have settled on farm animals, since I almost never consciously think about them.
My best guess is that someone I follow and interact with is a farm animal connoisseur, so the algorithm essentially shrugged and went “guess I’ll try this then” when it saw the baby content was a miss. Regardless, I also changed my behaviour here, making sure to watch as many videos as possible and interact with as much of the content as I could in hopes it would stay around forever. It must have worked a little bit, because I’ve noticed that when my feed is transitioning from one miss to the next, the farm animal posts come back for a short time. The algorithm almost works!
But of course, it does not work. Not really. You should know that by this point in the article. Obviously the good times stopped and Insta pivoted from successful content I like and interacted with regularly. The algorithm knows what you like better than you do, trust it on that.
Early-to-mid 2020: The algorithm has a near-miss
Oddly, I haven’t written about my love of trading card games before. Here’s a brief history: From late 2017 to early 2019 I played the Pokémon TCG somewhat competitively. I started to dislike the direction the game was going and switched to Magic: The Gathering. Insta took note, probably looking over my shoulder while I watched YouTube videos about the game and followed content creators on Twitter. The algorithm likely figured it had a slam dunk on its hands when it paused the cows to serve me all the MTG content it could find.
Except, I don’t want to see MTG content on Insta. Everyone uses social media differently, but as I said earlier, I’m on Insta for updates on my friends. I follow some local businesses and a few interesting semi-famous people, but I rarely interact with their posts. Plus, I get enough MTG content from YouTube and Twitter, which are both better platforms for the game. YouTube offers gameplay videos and deck techs. Twitter gives you space to discuss hot topics, share articles and cause messy drama.
I didn’t want to fault the algorithm for not knowing that, but as I wrote this it occurred to me that a truly smart program should be able to figure it out. Furthermore, all it was trying to show me were altered cards and fake cards people had designed. These are two areas of the game I don’t interact with at all. Clearly this algorithm has a rudimentary understanding of content that doesn’t go much further than “post = ‘MTG’, Pat like = ‘MTG’, show Pat post = ‘true’.”
Whatever, at least it was technically right. I imagine I made it do a lot of internal questioning after I clicked “Not Interested” on all those posts. Where it ended up after is another story.
Early 2020 to present: Girls, Girls, Girls
Browsing Insta makes me feel so much better about the competency of our social media overlords. It doesn’t seem hard to fool them about who you are and what you like. They really do not have a clue. Seeing how well the cows worked, I think the algorithm started combing my friends’ interests for new ideas. Its guesses so far have included:
- People who love to rave;
- People who seem to think they are anime and make the ahegao face (don’t Google that at work) in nearly every post; and
- Memes by lesbians for lesbians.
Why? Which one of you is this into ahegao? I know who among my followers are ravers and lesbians, but which one of you is so obsessed with ahegao that it is serving me all these young women who in five years will look back embarrassed at all these photos? I’m not going to further harp on that point, but I will say that it thankfully took a lot less clicks on the “Not Interested” button to make that go away than it did the babies or MTG posts.
I found the rave posts interesting. That’s not a subculture I know much about or really interact with at all (something I’m floored the algorithm didn’t notice) so it was neat to see the aesthetics at play and get a sense of the culture. Naturally, the algorithm stopped showing me these posts on its own.
I find the lesbian content the most confusing. I am not a lesbian, nor am I a woman. Yet this content is totally and explicitly aimed at women and nonbinary femmes who love women and other nonbinary femmes, and occasionally bi women and femmes too. None of it is aimed at male-presenting people. To me, showing me this is as odd as showing me content that’s in Russian. I don’t speak Russian, nor have I ever been to Russia. It’s simply not content aimed at me, and that should be immediately clear to any so-called artificially intelligent machine.
Sike! You know that whack algorithm shows me content in Russian all the damn time.
Aside: Reels have ruined everything
Observe the screenshots I have included. That massive image taking up the majority of the screen on the left is a Reel, Insta’s blatant TikTok ripoff. I assume it is paying off worse than its blatant Snapchat ripoff, Stories, since I have yet to see a Reel that was not just a reposted TikTok. And yes, that is one of the lesbian memes I was talking about, by user lipglosslesbian_ if you are interested. (As an aside to the aside, I do admit these memes are hilarious, and I see why the target audience likes them so much.)
This is just poor app design. Forcing a square-ish crop on a long, vertical video makes no sense since it obscures a ton of the frame. You can rarely tell what the video is about without clicking it. And that’s no way to encourage someone to click something. This sizing and placement takes up most of the screen, making it difficult to see any of the other posts. I seriously doubt a UX team rigorously designed this. My guess is that Insta hastily rolled out Reels to capitalize on Donald Trump’s attacks on TikTok. Forcing Reels top-of-screen like this was a way to ensure they did reasonably well. I wonder if Insta foresaw that they would all just be TikTok videos though.
What’s baffling about this design is that, lower on the feed (the right screenshot), Insta displays Reels prominently without obstructing all other content. The image is twice the height of a normal post and lets you see the entire frame before you enlarge it. (It’s also a lesbian meme by the way, and one of two on the page, by users planet.marrs and Its_pikaaa. The latter seems to have had their content reposted and probably not with permission, so that’s another L for Insta. There was no Russian content here, but just below this was something in Portuguese.)
You can kind of see a double-width image at the bottom. Regrettably it is also a square-cropped Reel. There’s no reason not to make that three normal posts deep and show the whole thing. But that box is how normal videos appeared before Reels, and that’s what leads me to believe this was not a well-thought-out concept and was something done on a whim to capitalize on the TikTok thing.
So long, algorithm. It’s been reel
I bring this up because this design makes the Explore tab more annoying to use than when I was being blasted by 20 ahegao faces every time I scrolled over to it. I can’t wait until Insta either discontinues or redesigns this feature properly for actual human use. I’ve been using Explore significantly less since Reels took over, and I worry I’m going to be deprived of all the algorithmic flops Insta tries to serve me in the future.
Like I said though, I suspect the algorithm is so bad because I give it so little to work with. Let me know what your experiences with Explore content, on Insta or anywhere else, have been like!