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The internet has been in a state of uproar over the imminent Instagram algorithm change. The democratic justice of chronologically ordered posts is to become a thing of the past, as Instagram introduces an algorithm that’ll have decisive power over what you do and don’t see.

Brands are nervous that this pay-to-play attitude, reminiscent of the Facebook organic reach choke, means their free ride will be over. With business profiles, Instagram will better be able to identify brands on the platform and make them cough up for the right to reach retinas. And influencers are in a similar panic, encouraging followers to turn on ‘post notifications’ before the changes are implemented – so users will receive push notifications every time their favourite Instagrammers post a pic. But the woes of overpaid bedroom models aside, this move has vast implications for the 400 million people that use the platform.

“On average, people miss about 70% of the posts in their Instagram feed,” says Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram. “What this is about is making sure that the 30% you see is the best 30% possible.” Instagram won’t only have decisive power over what you see, it’ll have the power to dictate what you don’t see. Google, Facebook – and now Twitter and Instagram – are luring us with the promise of a world based on ‘relevance’. Even the world’s most influential news sources are flirting with personalisation. “It’ll be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them,” confirms Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

We’re living in online gated communities of information and comfort-zone opinions, with the big platforms as gatekeepers – what author Eli Pariser calls filter bubbles. “What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do,” he says. “But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in.” The power of censorship lies not with governments in modern western democracies, but the powerful digital platforms that are, after all, private companies. If truth is arrived at through the clash of ideas, and progress is made by the challenge of opinions, could algorithms like these pave the way to an increasingly narrow-minded society?

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Alex Caminer is a senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8. Living at the intersection of psychology, physics and economics, he smiles at irrationality and enjoys being puzzled.

Canvas8

30 Mar 16

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