The Secret of the Instagram Engagement Algorithm

Everyone wants to know the secret of the Instagram algorithm. How to resurrect the poor engagement inflicted by the AI timeline, or changing to a business account, or from having been shadow-banned? You used to get loads of likes, now you are down to a quarter of what you used to expect. You have seen the Youtube videos, the blog articles, the Social Media marketing posts, the forums, all bristling with optimistic evangelical advice from self-appointed gurus offering you the key to the gates of engagement heaven. This article is going to give you the answer you have been looking for.

The exhaustive list of advice on how to beat the algorithm includes: posting at the right time and frequency; responding to every comment quickly; using every single IG feature from stories to IG Live to highlights; using the right hashtags; not editing your caption after posting; not reposting; culling inactive followers; not using too many hashtags.

In my opinion: None of this is true, sorry. If there is any vaguely scientific evidence, please show me. But it's just an aggregate list of the random stuff which uncreditable advisers say to get downhearted IG users to their channels. None of the advice makes sense. Why should IG care if you use 30 hashtags or 1? Or if it mattered, why should they give you the option, especially as they are so controlling about other aspects of using the network?

The truth is that there is absolutely nothing you can do about dropping engagement. The algorithm isn't about making the experience of Instagram good for its users, it's about making Instagram addictive. I personally am of the opinion that creating an addictive response is more important for the company than driving people to pay for ads, which they know 99% of users will never do. I believe this because it knows that if it cultivates a large captive market, then it can sell to it.

Just think: how well does the algorithm curate your feed for you? It's clunky, and random. Anyone who thinks the Instagram algorithm knows them in any half-convincing way must have serious interpersonal dislocation issues.

 It's your experience of receiving dopamine shots from likes and moments of engagement which is the name of the game.

 A drug dealer gets someone hooked by giving them great drugs (engagement) first. From that point on,  their users are just hooked, always chasing that same high. IG is no different. The algorithm gives the best engagement to those who start to make an effort with their posts, then tails it off, leaving its users hungry for more. It has long been scientifically proven that the key to strong addictive response is not consistent positive feedback, nor consistent negative feedback, but randomly intermittent positive feedback when you don't know when the next benign response is coming - that hit of the drug, the next text message from that person who may or may not like you back, the next like on that post...

None of the secret advice works. The algorithm is almost laughably obvious in how it artificially controls the number of likes and reach, no matter what you do. Stop worrying, stop wasting time, stop chasing this dragon.

On the plus side, despite what you might think Instagram is not punishing you for not doing the right stuff, or "getting on its bad side", as pundits seem to believe. Your current low engagement is not your fault, it's all rationed out by the IG algorithm. That high engagement you used to have was the deception.

A very small select group of users do break through, IG knows that's necessary, like any other fame-based / aspirational system (the compelling culture of pop music, film etc are all based upon the legends of icons). But they seem to be one of three groups: 1. people who are ultra-talented and authentic who also serendipitiously discover a good fan base 2. Accounts which cater to the fans of specific subject already established as popular outside Instagram - a person, activity, place, idea etc  3. Photographers and models who mainly publish thinly veiled pornography / glamour photography. I'd say the latter is causing a bigger problem for society outside social media in the pressure it puts on people, especially the young, struggling to see or discover their own unique inner and outer beauty. It's a very cheap way to get high engagement, no matter how many art school concepts you care to daub on top (or not).

Despite all of the above, if you stop caring about your algorithmic engagement, if you can see through the game where the rules are constantly changed without any regard for fairness, if you see you are actually playing a game where you are not even told the rules... then Instagram can be a great platform for simply expressing yourself freely in the way you choose, as long as you don't expect to get meaningful validation via the phenomenon of someone clicking like on your post. One person who is genuinely touched by a single photograph you create with your authentic self is worth a million likes, in my opinion. So many 'likes' are triggered absent-mindedly, to get people to look at their own profile, or the soulless churning of "bots or bot-like behaviour"... But that one person who sees a post and really gets it, and has their life changed even a tiny amount is better than any of that other crap. There is a lot of beauty on Instagram, amongst the dross, you need to be honest and happy about which of those two camps you fall into, and only you can judge.

Instagram is also so much less saturated with poisonous opinion and acrimony than Facebook and Twitter - a big plus in my view. Those two networks keep you addicted by provoking your rage, Instagram by provoking your insecurity.

Why should you believe me, when I have just criticised a bunch of other people for having no empirical evidence? Well, you shouldn't. I'm writing this because it is what I believe to be true, and I think in your heart of hearts you probably do to. You can consider what I'm saying, see how it fits your experience. Or you can easily just ignore this, and go back to trawling the blogs for hopeless advice and game strategies when you could be out in the world making something beautiful.

So this is the secret of the Instagram algorithm: it absolutely does not care about you, or what you do to try and game it. Anyone claiming you can get on its good or bad side is just projecting some dysfunctional figure, perhaps a parent or god archetype onto it. Instagram is a challenge to you. It asks: how much do you love what you are doing, and how do you feel good about yourself interacting in the world?

Now go to and follow and like me please.