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Obey Your Thirst: Why Users Cannot Resist Instagram’s Big Change

Iglika Mateeva
Iglika Mateeva

The chronological timeline is officially over. Facebook ditched it years ago, Twitter is inching away from it, and now Instagram is shedding time-ordered posts in favor of a curated feed. Soon, Instagram will order your friends’ posts based on popularity and the accounts you interact with most. This means you’re in danger of missing things — maybe your mom isn’t reeling in the likes for her photos of inspirational quote art, but hell, you still wanna see that. Only now, that’s going to be more difficult.

There is one way to make sure you won’t miss certain posts, though, and that’s by hitting the three dots in the corner of an Instagram profile, which will turn on notifications for that account. This won’t reorder your feed, but you’ll know whenever that person posts something.

Some advice: Don’t overdo this. It’s a smidgen stalkery to go down your Following list and turn on notifications for anyone you’re determinedly (but innocently!) creeping on. And all those notifications will get annoying. But if there are a few friends and family members whose ’grams you want to see, then go ahead and flip the switch.

This matters most, of course, for ~The Brands~. Insta celebrities, retailers, restaurants, TV show accounts, manufacturers, anyone who depends on Instagram for their livelihood is none too pleased about an algorithm deciding what tops users’ timelines. And for some reason, hordes of them are convinced the changes are being pushed through this week. (They aren’t.)

You might have noticed the cadre of incensed Instagram personalities and brands that have taken to the platform asking you to please, please turn on notifications. There are even templates available so they can ask for the favor in style. It’s thirsty out there.

They are mad, and they aren’t going to take it. Except that … they probably will. Whenever a social network releases an overhaul like this, the pushback is swift and certain. By adding a secret sauce to determine what you see, a platform is essentially making choices about what is cool or noteworthy or, in Instagram’s case, worth seeing. It’s undemocratic, and if there’s one thing we wrongly believe about the Internet en masse, it’s that it’s a democracy.

But algorithms can yield positive results. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, for all its faults, favors user content over brands. The last big update, launched in summer 2015, gave precedence to posts from your friends. Instagram’s change is similar, and that’s scary for a brand getting thousands of likes (some from bots, no doubt) but not consistent interaction from specific users. But for you, regular Instagram user, the only difference is that things won’t be in chronological order and you’ll probably miss a post or two. But when have you not, right?

What’s happening isn’t as fascinating as our reaction to it. In 2014, researchers from Penn State and UC Irvine published a study of how users react to structural changes in established social media sites. They chose perhaps the most controversial of all social media updates: the Facebook Timeline.

The researchers applied coping theory to how users reacted to the launch, and found some stressed-out people — they saw the Timeline as threatening to their Facebook experience. The no. 1 reason? Loss of familiarity, followed by loss of control. Obviously. Fear of the unknown and a sense of detachment caused by uncontrollable change were unsettling. The study also looked at what methods people used to cope: Overwhelmingly, users were very It’s not us, it’s Facebook. “Based on our analysis, user adaptation strategies tended to be slightly more problem-focused (51%) than emotionally-focused (49%),” the study found. “Users focused more on trying to change the environment (64%), as opposed to trying to change themselves (36%).” (Lol.)

It’s the same conclusion we can see in Instagram’s case — we’re more than just users. “These Facebook users had a strong sense that they were the user community (not the products) of Facebook,” the study explained. “Therefore, Facebook would fail without their continued use and customer loyalty.” After the Timeline rollout, some users threatened to leave Facebook — a coping strategy that has been tried time and time again and, as of yet, has not succeeded. (It won’t work on Instagram, either.) And what’s more, researchers tried to surmise the best method for coping with Timeline — leave Facebook? Self-censor and sabotage Timeline? Nope. It was, and I’m sorry for this, “learning how to use Timeline, customizing it to meet one’s needs, using common sense, making requests for changes, and ultimately accepting Timeline.” Resistance is futile, embrace the void, accept and love a nonchronological Instagram feed.

Instagram says nothing is happening “right now,” but it will let you know when the update is coming. Which is a nice way of saying that things are definitely about to change but not without a fair and more official warning than the barrage of Instagram brand thirst. Honestly, we should all be a little less upset about the new timeline and a little more terrified of a search bar coming to Following and Followers. No good can come of that.

This piece originally appeared in the March 30, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.