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Instagram in chronological order: what changes and why

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From 2022, the ability to view posts in chronological order will return to Instagram. The news came directly from the CEO of the app, Adam Mosseri, who anticipated it during the hearing in the Senate last week and then clarified in the last hours.

In short, from next year, users will be able to choose to view the posts of the profiles that follow in reverse chronological order, from the most recent to the oldest. This is a move that follows a series of controversies arising from the documents published by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, in the now famous Facebook Papers.

Which means reverse chronological order

As confirmed by Mosseri himself in a series of Instagram Stories, the company is testing two different functions, which should be released together early next year. The first is a chronological version of the feed with a degree of control given to the user. Basically, you can choose a group of favorites that will appear, always from the most recent to the oldest content, before all the others ‘followed’. The second is instead a feed in pure reverse chronological order, without any intervention by the user or the algorithm.

It is a return to the origins. Until 2016, in fact, the app founded by Kevin Systrom sorted the posts in reverse chronological order. The decision to switch to an algorithmic feed dates back to that year, which is what we use today every time we access the app. The Instagram algorithm, like that of many other social networks, uses artificial intelligence to customize the order in which the user sees posts, based on his interactions and activities on the platform.

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Is reverse chronological order the solution?

The algorithm and its consequences had been at the center of the controversy that arose after the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen. The former Facebook employee, among other things, had revealed how the platform’s artificial intelligence had been optimized to favor divisive and polarizing content. Haugen had also proposed, among the solutions to improve the experience on social networks of the Meta group, precisely the return to the chronological order of the posts.

A proposal that Instagram eventually accepted, it seems, despite Mosseri having specified that it is a project on which the company has been working for a long time. A project that can take some pressure off Meta’s shoulders but which, according to experts, may not represent the real solution to the problems of the social network, from disinformation to potential risks for teenage girls.

At the heart of the critique of algorithms is so-called amplification. Basically, when a user posts content, the platform decides how many people will see the post. Usually, if it receives a lot of interactions, comments or shares, it is shown by the algorithm to a very large number of people. In recent years it has often happened that particularly violent posts, or with false information, have received many interactions, including negative ones, and have therefore been amplified and disseminated by the Instagram and Facebook algorithms.

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In theory, the reverse chronological order adds some friction to this process. There is no automatic system that fuels the popularity of posts: everything is organic and entrusted to sharing and word of mouth from users. However, even this way of organizing content can have its unexpected consequences. According to Stanford Internet Observatory researcher Renee Di Resta, “the reverse chronological order ends up encouraging the continued publication of content.”

In other words, if the algorithm doesn’t decide what we see, it could be who publishes more often, as much as possible, who wins. According to Kate Starbird, professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, “in a purely chronological feed, to get to the top you just add content on content: it’s a system that rewards volume”. And it is not difficult to imagine that those who now exploit the algorithm to spread false or manipulative information will be ready, one day, to publish more content to continue reaching many users.

The doubts also concern the type of changes that Instagram will make. In particular, it’s unclear whether Instagram will continue to use algorithmic recommendation for the Explore feed, or to suggest other similar profiles to users when choosing to follow someone. In short, even the return of the reverse chronological order may not be total, leaving room for the algorithms for many other actions that we perform within the platform.

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