Instagram's algorithm only cares about one thing

A few times a year, I see an Instagram post floating around talking about the algorithm and how much worse it is than before. And every time, there are thousands of comments from people agreeing with frustration and unhappiness about the direction of the platform.

But I can't ever think of a time when people were happy with the algorithm, except for maybe when Instagram was first growing and there were significantly less people.

So much content, so little time

Instagram today has more people and more content being made on it than ever before. There are apparently millions of posts created each day on it. (A quick Google says 95 million, but I can't confirm the source for this.)

And every single one of those posts/reels/stories/IGTVs are competing to get your attention. And they're competing for time against everything else in your life, especially other social media platforms (*cough* TikTok).

And if you're like me, you are probably following hundreds of people and continue to follow more people over time - which means less time people can spend on each person they follow and each piece of content that the platform can show you. It simply isn't possible for a person to see and look at every post from whom they follow.

This my fellow creatives is what the algorithm is designed to help with. The goal of the algorithm is to show you content that it thinks you will like in the short amount you have, with the hope that you will stay for as long as possible.

An ever changing platform

I too have noticed that many of my posts don't get as much reach as they used to. But it isn't an apples to apples comparison. It was much easier before because posts were not competing against reels at the time.

Unless people have magically gained more hours in the day, they aren't going to see as many posts because of the introduction of reels. If they are spending any amount of time looking at reels (which they never did before), that means less time they are going to be seeing posts. Think about it.

And no matter how much you hope for it, reels aren't going to go away as long as the threat of TikTok stealing all their users exists.

This is hard news for many of us creators who have been using Instagram with success in the past by only posting photos and now have to compete against creators who are also making video content and reels.

To keep afloat, the only thing that matters is making interesting content that people want to engage with.

What is engaging content?

Making engaging content means making something that people want to spend time on. This could mean looking at the post itself but also includes reading the description, writing a thoughtful comment or browsing the comments. And this is why reels do well - because people generally spend more time on them simply by watching.

Commenting, liking and saving a post means nothing if you don't actually spend time looking at it. It isn't helpful to like/save a post and still scroll past - in fact that signals to the platform that even you didn't think it was interesting enough to stop.

Instagram 100% measures how much time you spend on a particular reel/post. They can measure if you scrolled back to it, how many seconds you spent you looking at it and if you continue to go back to it or not. The amount of time someone spends on a post/reel/story/etc. is the biggest measure of engagement.

It is a lot easier to make an interesting and engaging video than to make an engaging post with a photo. I'll take a tip from @hammerlyceramics in that reels are for growing your reach and posts are for selling/sharing final work.

That said, you can definitely still make posts engaging. Think of your favorite comic artist that you follow and how much time you spend reading and enjoying their work. Or an info-graphic that you read recently and shared with someone. You can still do it with posts, but it will be harder.

So what now?

Find a way to keep it fun so that you can keep on going. Film your process, talk about the problems you worked through to get to your final piece - make it interesting and fun for both you and the people you're making it for.

It is absolutely vital that you find a way to make it fun for yourself to do because the #1 thing about social media is consistency. And if you don't make it fun, you will get frustrated, drained and eventually burn out.

And yes, this is going to be hard and it's going to take you time to figure out what works for you and your audience. There are people whose full time jobs are to do social media so it is no easy thing.

Instagram, and social media in general, is a game. And if you aren't willing to play by their rules, you won't be in the game because there are plenty of other people who will play and you will get left behind.

Final words

Instagram is an ever changing platform that becomes more competitive each day. If you want to keep using it to grow your business, you need to focus on making interesting content and finding a way to have fun doing it so you don't burn out.

It can be incredibly frustrating at times, but this platform has allowed countless artists to meet other creatives and share their artwork with more people than they ever have, myself included. I wouldn't be able to do what I am doing today without it.

So let's find a way to work with it rather than fight it - because fighting it is exhausting and it won't stop Instagram or any other platform from doing what they want anyway.


Birdie Tam is an Asian-American/Swedish artist who specializes in ceramics, illustration and design. Follow her on Instagram or on YouTube for more.

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