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Instagram revives the chronological feed with half its heart

Instagram is finally giving back what it took away from its users in 2016: A chronological feed for watching photos and videos in its app. The company is now bringing it back in a rather weird fashion, but more on that later. At the end of the day, users will be able to see content in their feed in the same order that it was posted.

With the return of a chronological field — two chronological feeds, actually — users now have an option to avoid an algorithmically curated barrage of content based on their usage behavior trained over years and years of social media activity. Of course, this algorithmic feed is what made the app addictive, and also the reason why it got heat from lawmakers.

What is changing?

Instagram is not adding a switch that can be flicked to instantly shift between an algorithmic and chronological feed permanently. Instead, it is bringing back the latter half-heartedly. The app now shows a caret at the top-left corner, just below the Instagram logo, where users can choose between two options: Following and Favorites.

📣 Chrono Update 📣

Today, we’re launching two new chronological views for your Instagram Feed – Following and Favorites. These options give you more choice and control over what you see in the app.

Let me know what you think 👇🏼 pic.twitter.com/MBmPUUoGCV

— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) March 23, 2022

Following shows a feed of content from accounts you follow, in the same order that they were posted, with the most recently shared photos and videos appearing at the top. Favorites is basically that special set of people whose social media shenanigans you don’t want to miss, from friends and family members to a meme account or a favorite (duh) celebrity.

Instagram will let users add up to 50 accounts to the Favorites list. And thankfully, adding or relegating an account from that list won’t send an alert to those accounts. Even in the non-chronological feed, posts from a Favorites account will appear higher and will be instantly recognizable with a star badge on it.

Some big caveats

Instagram is rolling out the aforementioned changes via an update that will be available to all users within a day or two. That’s a faster pace of rollout than the usual cadence of a full week, or two. Instagram will tell users about the return of chronology on its app via in-app alerts and banners.

But here’s the bad part. Instagram still wants you to see its algorithmic feed. What that means is switching to a Favorites or Following feed will only last as long as you’re scrolling up and down. As soon as the app is closed and fired up again, users will be returned to the algorithmic Home feed.

We heard you loud and clear — chrono is back! 🚨

Two new chronological views have been added to your Feed. Tap “Instagram” on the top left of your app to switch between Favorites and Following. pic.twitter.com/737vVmo9aV

— Instagram (@instagram) March 23, 2022

There are a few more problems with Instagram’s change of heart. The new chronological feed changes are exclusive to the mobile app and won’t be available on the web version. And as The Wall Street Journal points out, Stories will be only visible when users are hooked to the default home feed. Switching to the Following or Favorites arrangement removes the row of Stories that appears at the top.

So yeah, if you want to check out Stories, stick to an Instagram layout curated by its algorithm. And just in case you aren’t aware, the arrangement of Stories is also dictated by the algorithm, and it’s not chronological.

Why does it matter?

The biggest problem with the algorithm-driven home feed is that it made the app addictive. Or as app developer Peter Mezyk put it more accurately in an Insider interview, Instagram is designed to act just the way addictive painkillers work. Instagram’s addictive potential has been the subject of research papers, with some even linking it to a rise in procrastination among students and affecting their academic performance as well as the quality of life.

When Instagram chief Adam Mosseri sat before the U.S. Senate in December last year, he was asked about his take on saving children from being manipulated by an algorithm trained to learn from their social media interactions and activity. Mosseri admitted that the company needs to up the ante of accountability and transparency, and also revealed the feed change plans that have now come to fruition.

A person holds an iPhone in their hand while on the Instagram app.
Youssef Sarhan/Unsplash/Digital Trends Graphic

Instagram is not a very pleasant place to be, especially for young users who also happen to form the largest demographic of the app’s user base. An algorithmic feed often creates an echo chamber and traps users inside their own filter bubble. When that happens, the potential for spreading misinformation and belief in harmful conspiracy theories skyrockets.

The more you engage with a specific type of content, the deeper you are pushed down the rabbit hole by Instagram’s content algorithm. A few likes on stomach-toning exercise videos can soon flood users with an endless volley of posts promoting unhealthy eating habits and unverified fitness hacks.

Plus, it also leads to a descent down the hell of body positivity issues and depression because of the unrealistic body standards being paraded on all corners of Instagram. And then there are other serious problems like a bustling drugs trade that is ensnaring teens and child predatory behavior online.

Towards a healthy Instagram

For users who only flock to Instagram occasionally as a boredom buster, the return of chronological feeds isn’t really a big change. But for folks who regularly engage with friends and family members, and consume content from a lengthy list of influencers and celebrities, the stakes are much higher.

Being able to switch between a “controlled” version of Instagram’s feed and an unhinged algorithm-fueled feed that wants nothing but their attention is more than just another feature update. It is a drastic change that can have a tangible impact on their quality of life, and how much of it is affected by their social media experiences, both good and bad.

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