Small business owners and independent traders are up in arms over Instagram’s decision to ‘do a Facebook’ and move towards an algorithm-based news feed. In the past 48 hours well over 144,000 individuals have signed a Change.org petition, campaigning to keep the popular photo-sharing network chronological. More than 70,000 signatures were collected within the first 24 hours of the petition going live, from Instagram’s impassioned community, and the number is continuing to rise at a pretty fast rate. A boycott of silence is also running today. The petition letter reads in part… “We believe an algorithm-based feed will be detrimental to small business owners and artists who use this platform to communicate their products and services. Not to mention the communities that have been built within Instagram.” It’s feared small businesses, who receive relatively small (but critical) levels of engagement, will get buried by the ‘power users’ who can amass 1,000 likes within seconds, just for a selfie. Instagram has become an important platform for sole traders particularly, giving them a place to showcase their work and build a loyal following of customers. For many, it helps to drive revenue. The algorithm change could have a massive impact on the number of people who see their posts, and therefore their business, moving forward.
So why the change?
Instagram is owned by Facebook, so it makes sense that it would eventually follow a similar trajectory with its news feed. Instagram explains within its official statement: “The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimising the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.” According to Instagram, people miss on average 70% of their feeds, and so the move, it claims, is in the user’s favour. So in one respect, it will mean that users only see posts from brands and businesses they care about, creating more of a level playing field between the big guys and the independents. In recent months, Instagram has become increasingly commercial with the number of brand sponsored posts with news feeds rising, so potentially the move towards an algorithm will offset that trend. But really, it seems pretty obvious that Instagram is following in Facebook’s footsteps, limiting organic brand reach across its platform, so that only the paying brands will be seen. At its heart, it’s a money-making initiative, in which small businesses may be the hardest hit.
What’s the bigger picture?
Coincidentally (or maybe not!), yesterday Twitter also turned on its new algorithmic timeline for everyone. Initially it rolled out slowly, on an opt-in basis, but it now seems to be the default setting across the platform. Increasingly it seems the number of mainstream places on the web which are not being curated, are few and far between. Social media feeds are moving away from something that’s been privately created, towards an algorithm that the company decides on. In some ways, it seems a reminder of who’s in charge, and who owns the platform. Internet historian and University of Michigan professor Chuck Severance, explains: “When a company makes your feed algorithmic, it’s the moment that you’re being squeezed as an asset…It’s them reminding you that you’re not the owner, you’re the product. You do know that, right?” Moving forward, small businesses will find it harder to be organically noticed on social media platforms, and will need to find new ways to keep their online following engaged. As one individual writes within the petition, “I’m a small business who doesn’t want to get swallowed up”.