The Instagram algorithm and the little red dot that’s about to drive the pale blue dot crazy

The gloriously frenetic, messy, hashtag-polluted world of Instagram is about to become noiser or more peaceful, depending on what decisions you make now that Facebook has started playing with the photo app’s algorithms.

If you use Instagram, you would have already been flooded by uses sharing a range of images from stylish to garish, imploring you to ‘turn on post notifications’ so that you NEVER MISS a precious image from them ever again.

As marketers using this tool to promote our blogging or directly promote out businesses, what should our approach be and why is some of the Instagram universe in a panic?

The noise over this made me think of Carl Sagan’s observation in 1994 that our planet is a ‘pale blue dot’ when viewed from billions of kilometres away; his point was that we often make much over nothing.

With Carl’s sobering reality check, let’s venture forth and ponder what decisions to make in relation to this latest change.

The Instagram algorithm and the end of the world

In a nutshell, this week Facebook, the owners of Instagram, turned on an algorithm to sort the photos we see from the Instagram accounts we follow.

Instead of opening Instagram and seeing all the images being shared by all the accounts we follow in chronological order, the boffins at Facebook have applied some science to the stream so that we’ll now only see images we are more likely to ‘want to see’.

As with any change to free, popular services, many users got quite angry and people using Instagram for marketing got their wake up call that if they want the easy pathway to visibility, then it is time to start paying for it.

Others read through the details and saw that uses can choose to TURN ON notifications of new posts from Instagram accounts, and it opened the floodgates.


Red dot alert: Please turn on post notifications

Lots of images, like the shoddy one above that I whipped together, flooded Instagram, as desperate Instagrammers begged their followers to turn on post notifications so they would ‘never miss another post’.

One unexpected downside of slavishly following that advice, is that your beloved Instagram app will start glowing with a busy red dot of notifications as accounts post their photos into the stream.

Given how regularly some Instagrammers post their lovely photos, by turning on post notifications your app will almost always have its little red dot of notification alight, pestering you to click through to see the latest filtered feed from accounts you are following.

My advice to users is to NOT turn on post notifications unless you are completely wedded to an Instagrammer or able to ignore that red dot beckoning to you to come and see something.

Is our Instagram account now lost in space?

But what should marketers do in this new frontier?

As with any change in a marketplace, it is time to take stock and check your strategic reasons for pouring time and/or money into any particular channel, whether it be Instagram, Google or the local newspaper.

The culture of discovery through hashtags is still likely to bring new people into contact with your Instagram account and maybe the onus on conversion from less visits will lead to greater thought going into image selection?

By that I mean, if your goal is to share images and stories that inspire a viewer to learn more about you by clicking through to your user profile and then following your bio link to your website, then we might see less ‘fluff’ in Instagram and start seeing more wow moments or fun moments or images that are memorable.

If we take a leaf out of one of Carl Sagan’s many books, perhaps this next month might be a time for re-evaluating our activity in Instagram and monitoring how users behave in this brave new world.

My expectation is many users will turn OFF post notifications once they get annoyed one time too many by a multitude of average images, and things will then find some equilibrium ahead of the next tinkering of the algorithm.


A moment away from the bright red dot

For something different, here is Carl Sagan’s famous reflection on Earth aka the Pale Blue Dot, which was inspired by a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe, looking back at our planet from six billion kilometres away. It was Carl Sagan who suggested the probe turn around and try to take a snapshot of Earth. Now what a great Instagram post that would have made!


From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.—?Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi