The Instagram Algorithm Explained – Theory


Thank you to Melissa ( who helped me word my thoughts and ideas in this post in the best possible way.


Instagram, Instagram, Instagram… What are you like? you used to be my favourite platform where I’d upload all my photos that I’m most proud of, showcasing the highlights of my life for the world to see. But things have changed. These days, only about 70 of my 1000 followers see my photos. Occasionally, every now and then one of my pictures will do really well and it’ll be like the good ‘ole times again. However, most of the time I’m fuelled with disappointment after endlessly trying to get more engagement but gaining very little out of it.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? I thought so. The only reason I know that is because I see it day in and day out on my twitter feed, people disgruntled and frustrated ever since the ‘evil algorithm’ came into place back in early 2016.

Now, I have a theory…


How do you know when the club is closing? The lights come on.

Instagram, among every other social media platform that you see, want you to stick around, the longer you do the more ads you come across, the more money they make. Simple.

Over the years, subtle changes have been made to these platforms to lure you into spending as much of your time as possible on their platforms. Remember when you used to have to click that annoying ‘view more’ button when you were scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed? Notice how it’s not there anymore? The very subtle deletion of an action entices you into an endless scroll meaning you’re never ‘up to date’ or finished. You’re subconscious is constantly telling you that there is more to see beyond the next finger scroll on your screen, and because it is literally that simple, you do it without even realising.

How do you know when you’ve finished a meal? Your plate is clean. How do you know if the club is closing? The lights come on. All these things have a definitive end that tells you to stop, but what if those features of an ‘ending’ are taken away? How would you know when to stop? You would keep going.

You might be thinking ‘well Instagram just added a feature that tells me when I’m ‘All Caught Up!’ … hold you’re horses, I’m going to get to that bit later…


The Creation of a Behaviour and Physiology behind it.

There was an experiment done by American Psychologist, Dr Skinner, where a pigeon would be trained to press a button in order to receive food ( In the first experiment, every time the pigeon pecked the button and a treat would be dispensed as a symbol of reward. However in the second experiment, Dr Skinner began to reward the pigeons randomly, not just in frequency but in the quantity of food given as well, the result of this was that the pigeons started to peck continuously and compulsively at the button. One pigeon even tapped the button 87,000 times over the course of 14 hours even though it only got a reward 1% of the time.

The experiment was done to see if he could create not just a habit but an addictive behaviour. What’s scary about this experiment however is that these addictive, reward-based traits are identifiable in humans. It occurs in our lives every single day without us even realising.



Just like the pigeon, I hope be ‘rewarded’ with likes and comments on my Instagram posts. However, on most days the comments and likes I receive are far and few between. Now ultimately the elephant in the room here must be addressed. Maybe our photo’s suck. This could be true, but it’s unlikely given Instagram’s algorithm updates. The algorithm controls not how many people see your post but who see’s them too.This is controlled by the algorithm of Instagram that controls not only how many people see your posts but who sees them.

The same pigeon experiment also applies to the fact my following is never the same number for five minutes because of how much it fluctuates up and down. Have you ever noticed yourself following an account you don’t ever remember following? Or randomly finding yourself not following certain accounts before?


Can you Earn Engagement?

It’s a common belief that to improve engagement on your photo’s you yourself should like and comment more. Ironically, that is most likely what Instagram’s intentions were when updating the algorithm, however not because they want the platform to be all unicorns and rainbows where everyone compliments each other’s outfits and plays happy families but because they want to eat away at the amount of time you spend on it.

Think about it. If you’re getting little engagement for ages and then you go and spend an hour or so liking other peoples posts and following them in order to get the same things back and then all of a sudden your most recent post does really well, you’re going to want to repeat the process again, creating a habit. Eventually this builds up to you having to spend more time engaging with other peoples content even more, spending even more time on the account to gain that sense of reward.


Does the Algorithm Penalise Business Accounts?

So what we’re saying is it’s likely that the Instagram algorithm ranks posts in feeds based on engagement. Therefore to place highly you need to spend time liking and commenting on other peoples content to get it back in return. However, it’s not uncommon to see people claim they’ve lost engagement since switching to a business account despite abiding by the same tactic.

This could be because as a business account Instagram want you to pay to promote your posts to gains a larger reach. Therefore it’s possible that if you’re not doing that then Instagram will actually rank you lower than if you were to have a normal account, hence why most people switch back (myself included).


How Do the Big Content Creators Manage their Engagement?

The truth is a the majority of them don’t, even Zoella averages between 3-5% engagement on her posts, but because her following is at 10.7M it often goes unnoticed. Often famous content creators find it much easier to focus on growing their following rather than their engagement rate. Blogger and Instagrammer, @lornaluxe (who I have a huge girl crush over, I mean who doesn’t?), has written a post advising on how you can gain genuine followers on Instagram and openly admitted that she spends at least 30 minutes engaging with other people’s content before and after posting. However, her engagement rate averages between 1-2%. So it isn’t just us mere mortals who struggle, its literally everyone.


The New ‘You’re All Caught Up’ Feature

But what about the ‘you’re all caught up!’ feature Instagram has now added that shows you all the posts that have happened in the last 2 days? Authorities are cracking down on social media platforms, as to whether (or not) they are purposefully trying to keep people occupied on their apps for longer. It’s not impossible that this is one of the ways Instagram is trying to hide it. I’m still finding that recent posts from people I follow not showing up on my feed therefore increasing me to believe that It’s a feature that has been created as a legality measure not to alter or change the user experience.


Is the Red Notification Symbol Really Harmless?

I have and always will, but I do think it’s important to recognise the impact that social media can have on us, even in the most subtle of ways. When you see the red circle with the number of notifications you have on a social media icon, or even when you hear or feel your phone vibrate that causes you to switch tasks (i.e. like the app, look at your texts) it turns off your thoughtful, reasoning prefrontal cortex and releases dopamine, our brain’s addiction chemical and a stress hormone ( So in short it’s as harmless/harmful as you let it be. If you find that your phone and social media applications are making you feel stressed, try turning your phone’s display to be black and white only and see if it makes you feel better and act differently (Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Colour Filters > Slide Colour Filters Toggle).

How dopamine and serotonin circulate differently in the brain



It’s crazy how easy it is for brands and business’ to tap into our brains and influence the way we behave. It happens not just online but in the supermarket, in your favourite clothes store, literally everywhere. I’m so intrigued by it all, I was actually inspired to write this post by a recent episode of Panorama… Did I actually say that? If you do feel affected by the way social media is making you feel remember you might not be able to change your level of engagement, but you can change the way it makes you feel, which is far more powerful.


*Disclaimer: I appreciate this post won’t apply to everyone, but from my research, it will for most of you. If you don’t think my theory is right then I’m not asking for any kind of validation, however I would urge you to keep it in mind and think about it the next time that you get pissed cause the beautiful pic of you in your best outfit during golden hour only got 47 likes and a comment saying ‘Great Stuff!’ from @freefollowers4you18 …*


I really hope you found this post interesting! What do you think the algorithm is trying to do? Let me know in the comments below!




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