As a rule, social networks are terrible at understanding their human users — no matter the ooey-gooey platitudes about bringing us “closer together” their executives piece together.
Never has this been more clear than over the past few days, when Instagram’s algorithm continually shoved well-meaning but emotionally ruinous “happy Father’s Day!” garbage down my throat.
Quick background: A brain tumor put my dad six feet under close to 11 years ago, when I was still a teenager. It was, I’d say, pretty traumatic: he spent close to two years incredibly sick, confused, and weak.
So, I’m not a huge fan of Father’s Day. But the “holiday” does gangbusters for Facebook, the social behemoth that owns Instagram and subsists on the content you feed it. Nearly 830 million photographs and videos were shared to Facebook on Father’s Day last year. When the networks gain sentience and take over, this will be their Thanksgiving — a feast of plenty where your visual data is the turkey and the stuffing.
Your photos and videos give platforms like Facebook and Instagram data to market against, which means these social networks will stop at nothing to get you to Share, Share, Share. Seeing your friends post a certain kind of content encourages you to do the same — perhaps you’ve felt this inertia yourself after scrolling through dozens of “love you, dad!” posts — which is why the automated processes behind your Facebook and Instagram feeds show you highly engaged-with content that you’re likely to enjoy.
Put very simply, your feeds aren’t chronological. They’re automatically arranged according to a variety of signals, and the content you see up top is supposedly the material you’re most likely to interact with.
This creates some problems. On Friday — as in, an entire five days after Father’s Day — Instagram was delivering reheated content about how excellent it is to have a dad who isn’t, like, super dead. All smiles and happy fission for the perfect nuclear family. Certainly this pain has been written about before.
But good grief, I just checked again out of morbid curiosity and there are two more in my feed, like roaches on the wall:
This is now 144 hours after Father’s Day photos should be remotely of interest to anyone, and that’s where this gets interesting. Because while I can boo-hoo about my corpse-Pops until the cows come home, this is really about what a dumb, inhuman product Instagram is.
Social media, as opposed to the, uh, non-social media it’s meant to replace, should be of the moment. Immediacy is its raison d’etre — the thing that keeps us coming back for more and dragging down on our screens like they’re slot machines.
A quick survey of the first 10 posts on my Instagram feed today, pulled from the 222 people I follow:
Picture of the Manhattan skyline, posted four days ago
Another Father’s Day post (!!!) from six days ago
Happy colleagues, four days ago
#TBT post about a beach published two days ago
Happy birthday Insta from three days ago
A nice book design, posted two days ago
Video of a “Cirith Ungol” concert published one entire week ago
Video of a grandma doing a judo chop from six days ago
Sister-in-law enjoying some sun five days ago
Shirtless guy with some pasta. Four days ago.
Of the 10 different people who published this machine-nourishing content, only four had posted something else in the past day. It’s not a scientific survey, but it leads me to wonder if Instagram — just like daddy Facebook, as famously reported by The Information last year — is experiencing a problem with people sharing less. How else to explain this flood of old-ass content in my feed, including oh so many smiling fathers?
Whatever the reason, it highlights something very simple about the “social” apps we use every day: They don’t really understand their human users and what we want.
Algorithms play on our behavior to deliver content we’re meant to enjoy. They’re supposedly better at this than people, who obviously couldn’t curate the material in your social feeds even if Facebook wanted them to do that. But this week proves how disastrous the formula can be: who wants a feed of old media, especially when it’s emotionally taxing to sift through?
A roughly 10 million-word profile of Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom published on Recode earlier this year ended with an interesting quote. “Our mission is to strengthen relationships through shared experiences,” Systrom told the outlet. “And we’re going to be best at that in the world.”
To which we say: Lol. And: Try harder. Oh, and finally: Your users are living, breathing human beings with emotions, not data points. Move beyond the platitudes and fix the product.