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Let’s Talk About The Algorithm
Featuring an interview with Sebastian Speier, former Design Lead at Instagram
Oops. I am already breaking my own rules. While this week’s newsletter doesn’t feature someone who “actually presses post,” it does feature someone who worked on the platform that lets you press post in the first place. I feel so lucky to have connected with Sebastian Speier, a former Design Lead at Instagram, a few months ago. And I feel extra lucky that he agreed to go on record for an interview about *insert dark piano music* THE ALGORITHM.
In my last newsletter, I referenced this post, which claimed that there was some huge new update to Instagram’s algorithm and that we should all be saving and sharing posts. The caption, written by someone with zero affiliation with Instagram, framed it like this: “Now, the best way to show support for the creatives you love online is by saving their post, sharing with your friends or in your Instagram stories, commenting on it, and lastly, liking it. Yes, the likes are still nice and encouraging, but the saves are where it’s at!”
I found this a bit worrisome, especially since the post got over 95K likes (who knows how many saves?) and clearly reached a lot of people. Was this going to send small businesses and creatives down a rabbit hole of trying to “hack” the algorithm? Were we going to start to see an influx of captions ending in “Save and share my post!”? It also provided zero evidence as to where this new algorithm information came from.
But I understand how these sorts of algorithm update posts happen. Instagram as a platform rarely gives any insight into how their algorithm works. They are constantly conducting A/B tests to try out new features (this just happened yesterday), and they do very little to mythbust viral posts like these. It seems like almost every month, there’s some sort of viral moment trying to explain the algorithm—yet it’s rarely (if ever) coming from someone at Instagram. That’s why I am excited to share this conversation with Sebastian, who was willing to openly chat with me about the work he did on the algorithm (specifically within IG Stories) and a few pointers he has for navigating it all.
Rachel Karten: Hi Sebastian! Excited to chat with you. First, do you mind telling me a little bit about your role when you were at Instagram and what you worked on?
Sebastian Speier: I was a Design Lead at Instagram from 2018 to 2019, spending most of my time on the Stories Engagement team. That means I focused on where people find and open stories and how they watch them. When you open an Instagram Story from one of your friends, you are watching it in its own viewer (editor’s note: the image/video that fills up your screen), and that’s the surface that I primarily owned and worked on. We also owned the parts of Home where stories are accessible: mainly the little bubbles at the top of the Home Feed (we called those pogs).
RK: Got it! Okay, let’s dive in. How do you describe the algorithm and how it works?
SS: As someone who worked on Home—the main surface where the algorithm really comes into play—I would describe it as a set of rules for how we delivered the most relevant content to the people who are consuming it. Our mission on Home was to connect you to the people and things that you love (and follow).
Technically speaking, when people refer to the algorithm they are referring to a few different things that are coming together: Ranking and Features.
Ranking is how Instagram decides what you will see next. Feed and Stories both rank things a bit different—Feed, where you see Posts, is mostly going to show you interests and brands first, and posts from accounts you follow that are getting a lot of engagement within your communities and circles. Stories is mostly going to show you things from your close friends. Instagram tries really hard to rate relationships between you and all of your friends, and the strongest relationships are ones it knows you want to watch the most. It uses a number of different signals to build these ratings—whether you both follow each other, whether you DM each other, whether you like each other’s posts, etc. The stronger that bond, the more likely it is that you’ll see their stories first.
Features are tools on Instagram that are designed to both benefit you and your audience, as well as increasing creative product quality and consumption. The question sticker doesn’t just get way more people to reply to the original story; it also gives the creator an excuse to repost those answers and produce way more content than they would before. If your audience likes your content, and you like your audience, this is a win-win scenario. They get more of your content, you get more feedback from your audience, and Instagram is happy because their engagement is growing. These tools are really there to help you build your audience and your relationships.
RK: Very helpful. Okay, let's say you're a social manager and your boss asks you "HOW DO WE BEAT THE ALGORITHM?”—what’s your response?
SS: While some people are skeptical that they have to beat the algorithm, I would strongly encourage them to reframe the problem as how do we leverage the algorithm and take advantage of the new tools we are given? The algorithm is there to help you, not to necessarily make you work harder (ed note: in my next newsletter I am talking to a sex toy shop owner about her experience with the algorithm and how she finds she often *does* have to work harder). New features are designed to net you more engagement. Some examples of this:
Posting your posts to your stories doesn’t “reward” your post with a higher position on people’s feeds. You’ll see increased engagement because sharing that post in your story will drive more people back to it to engage with it.
Sending more DMs doesn’t “make the algorithm like you more,” it just means the people you are DMing are more likely to visit your profile.
Posting more Reels means you are taking up more space on a new surface with a new audience, and that new audience is more likely to visit your profile from the Reels section and engage with your other content.
I want people to stop seeing the Instagram algorithm as being some kind of god you have to please, and to just think critically about the tools and how they work. I think it’s important people stop feeling like the platform is rewarding them or punishing them, and instead feel empowered to take actions that grow their audience or their business on their own terms
RK: Can you talk a little bit about shadow banning? And how sometimes it seems like the algorithm is punishing people/brands?
Instagram is very aware of this and has been trying to fix it for an eternity, but it's a wicked problem with no immediate solutions. This isn't really a defense of Instagram, so much as it is a call to understand and think critically about how Instagram works. I have my own problems with Instagram. Personally, I think that they could build more walled gardens where marginalized people don't have to worry about being attacked by angry mobs and where regulatory tools wouldn't be so weaponized against them. Everybodyvisible puts it best in this sentence: "Now, slowly but surely people who are different are being deleted and hidden by social media companies. Social media imitates life and life imitates social media. This is the age in which we live." I agree fully, but people are not being deleted because Instagram is censoring them necessarily. People are being deleted because Instagram is weaponized by bad actors in the same confrontations and persecutions these people often face in real life.
RK: It’s VERY clear to me that Instagram needs to work on this. What are common misconceptions or misinformation about the algorithm that you'd like to dispel?
SS: Every month I see a new viral post about the new algorithm or strategies on how to game the system, and they are often made up of half-truths or misconceptions around how things work. Sometimes the effect might be the same, but it’s dangerous to think about the features in that way.
A recent example is I’ve seen people saying the new important way to show support to your favorite creators is to make sure you not only like, or comment, but that you also save their post. While Instagram might be using save as a signal to rank posts, it is far more likely that people are saving it because it’s worth remembering, and creators are conflating these two things: That something that resonates will get saved more, not that saving more will make something resonate. In what is kind of a chicken and egg scenario, the act of saving isn’t really the signal that matters—the signal is that you are actually engaging with it more, and probably because it is of higher quality or relevance. TLDR: Creators should be focusing on what resonates with their audiences, not how to appear at the top of more people’s feeds.
RK: I think that’s a really good way to look at those sorts of posts. What are some actionable, useful tips you have for people to get more engagement and visibility on Instagram? I think that is usually what people are after when asking how to "beat the algorithm."
SS: My main advice is to look at the features as new opportunities to connect with your audience. Here are some examples of how to think critically about how some features work:
Have conversations: Sending more DMs doesn’t “reward you with the algorithm,” but the people you DM are more likely to visit your profile, and engage with your other content (posts, stories, highlights, etc).
Carousels give followers multiple chances to interact with your work: Posting multiple images to a carousel (a.k.a. slideshow), squeezes more content into a smaller area. If someone scrolls past your carousel without interacting, the next time they refresh their feed the algorithm will bump the carousel back up to the top with the next image displaying first, giving you a free second chance at securing their eyes.
RK: Since you specifically worked on Instagram Stories, do you have any advice on creating engaging Instagram Stories?
SS: Every time you share on IG stories, consider what you want your audience to do with it:
If I am asking a question, I should expect people to answer—and I should be ready to have those conversations. Don’t ask a question if you don’t want people to answer it.
If I am sharing new work, like a recipe, I should expect people to reply to it, but how can I make it easier for them to share it? Since you can’t share someone else’s story without tagging them in it, maybe I should consider making this a post instead and then sharing the post to my story.
If I want people to watch all of my stories, consider how much time it takes for them to consume everything currently displaying in that story bubble. I know that when I open someone’s story and it has 60 dots across the top, I am immediately uninterested or I feel like I don’t have time to watch it all, so I’ll probably skip it. Those social contracts apply to everyone, including you! So be thoughtful about how you’re consuming other people’s time.
Keep your stories authentic, and don’t worry about being too professional or polished.
RK: Finally, as someone who worked at Instagram, how do you suggest we as social media consumers (and managers) have a healthier relationship to the platform?
SS: I do agree that Instagram could be more transparent about how their tools work, but they also don’t want people to game or exploit their tools. In my opinion, a healthier way to engage with social media is not to seek likes and validation and to instead realize that what you actually want is stronger ties to your community and your audience. Think about how to build those connections.
I know there are people who rely on social media for their livelihood—and higher engagement can transform their businesses. There is certainly nothing wrong with growth-hacking your way to success, but I encourage those people to dig deeper into more meaningful transactions: Reach out to your audiences through tools like polls and the question sticker, listen to your audiences, and give your audiences what they want.
A QUICK DEBRIEF
If your head is spinning a bit from that interview… same. I have such complicated feelings about Instagram and the algorithm. I understand Sebastian’s statements around the algorithm being a tool you should take advantage of and not view as the enemy, but it’s hard to not feel like certain people or brands are more set up for success while others are only reaching 5% of their audience or are being suspiciously demoted in the feed. Hoping I can work out some of those thoughts in the next newsletter, where I talk to Amy Johnson, the founder of online sex toy shop Nox Shop, about how they have had their fair share of issues with the algorithm.
AND, FINALLY, SOME SOCIAL JOB POSTINGS