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25 May 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:21pm

Instagram is the latest social media platform to gently ignore what users really want

Instagram’s mute button joins Twitter’s character count on the list of things people never really craved. 

By Sarah Manavis

When social media platforms make major changes – whether functional, aesthetic, or algorithmic – they’re typically met with universal discontent. Everyone hates when timelines get mixed up, when squares become circles, or when reaction buttons get put in place of simple likes. While we eventually get over (or used to) changes to our feed, rarely are they immediately embraced.

Earlier this week, though, Instagram bucked that trend with the announcement that it will be gradually implementing a “mute” function on the app. This will allow users to hide specific accounts from showing up in their feed and Instagram Stories a) without the muted user’s knowledge and b) without having to unfollow them. But, while this will come as a relief to those of us who have been desperate to mute boring Instagram stories, posts from exes, and night-out pics from vaguely-remembered acquaintances, for many it will come as a disappointment. Not because of the mute capability itself, but because it signals that Instagram has no plans to address one of its users’ biggest problems.

Last year, Instagram implemented an algorithm for ordering users’ timelines. These timelines no longer reflected a chronological order, but one based on engagement, which immediately sparked two waves of outrage. The first wave came from brands and influencers, who were losing huge chunks of their usual engagement and their audience. The second wave came from average users, who suddenly weren’t seeing posts from friends and family. It eventually was reported that the new algorithm modified feeds to the point where users’ posts were only showing up for just 10 per cent of their followers and it felt like everyone was losing out.

Some of those attached to the old system were initially hopeful that, like Twitter, Instagram would have an opt-out option. But this hope never came true. And since then, Instagram users have been requesting, demanding, and begging for the algorithm to be undone daily (a Twitter search will come up with hundreds of tweets of this nature in just the last 24 hours.) 

Instagram isn’t alone in ignoring its users’ most common request. For years, both Facebook and Twitter have received similar flak, such as Twitter’s refusal to ban Nazis but decision to increase character count, and Facebook’s dating site launch in the face of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Even YouTube received widespread criticism just this week when it quietly mentioned that it was in the midst of experimenting with its feeds in a move that, seemingly, nobody asked for. Instagram is far from the first social media platform to bring in unnecessary changes in the face of demands for others, and while this may not stop users from demanding meaningful changes, history shows that odds are not in the users’ favour.

Why won’t social media platforms give users what they want? The potential reasons are endless. One of the more plausible theories, though, is that platforms’ ability to control what you see means that brands and influencers will have to pay up to get their content onto their audience’s feeds. While this may seem like a relatively benign, or even fair change (this is how social media platforms make money, after all), critics say feed “optimisation” is an increasingly slippery slope that could stifle creativity and put the control of content into the hands of high-paying advertisers. Calling out YouTube’s experiments with their subscription feeds, YouTuber Ethan Klein, of h3h3productions (sporting 5.6 million subscribers), emphasised this point, saying that changes to the subscription feed could make channels “completely invisible” even to their own subscribers.

Instagram’s mute button may be a positive addition to many people’s feeds, but it doubles as a distraction from disgruntlement about other changes. We all may rejoice over getting to hide distant relatives’ excessive posts about politics, shopping trips, and cringey memes, but when it comes to the real priorities of users, Instagram is employing some muting attempts of its own. If other major social media platforms are anything to go by, we can expect them to keep doing so indefinitely.