Since Instagram started launching stories in August 2016, the Facebook-owned company has been steadily increasing in popularity, mostly at the expense of Snapchat. In early 2017, Instagram Stories overtook Snapchat in terms of audience size. One of the early differentiators between Instagram and Snapchat was Instagram’s heavy reliance on algorithmic ranking. In June 2016, the Instagram feed moved to an algorithmic model (it was previously chronological) and the order of Instagram stories at the top of the app is based on engagement data from Instagram and Facebook. Most social platforms are built on proprietary algorithms that aren’t 100 percent transparent to users (not to mention advertisers). Consider the entire practice of “search engine optimization” (SEO) for example, which essentially involves reverse-architecting Google’s mysterious algorithm to attain higher organic search rankings. Within Instagram, one area in particular that has been met with public intrigue has been the order of viewers within one’s Instagram Stories.
The list of viewers is not chronological, but it also doesn’t seem to be rooted in “activity” data—that is, public interactions like likes, tags and comments—alone. This has led some users to launch their own tests to determine which other factors might be in play. In an exhaustive Reddit thread, several users have put forth the hypothesis that our top-ranked story viewers are, at least partially, the people who view our profiles and photos the most, without necessarily engaging the with the content. In other words, our stalkers rank highest. To test the theory, the Reddit users created dummy accounts and made frequent visits to their other handle from that account without liking or commenting on anything. The testers claim that this behavior helped push the test alias up in the ranking, thereby confirming the theory that our top story viewers correlate with our top stalkers.
It’s most likely that Instagram weighs several factors in the ranking, including public activity, messaging, interactions within stories and, yes, profile views, too. Regardless of what goes into the secret sauce, the algorithm and its (sometimes mysterious) relevance to our lives seem to be driving the app’s stickiness—even if we don’t always know why the people or content within the app are prioritized the way they are. Per a Harvard study, social networks are both physically and psychologically addictive, so it’s reasonable to believe that platforms like Instagram are optimizing interfaces and features that trick our brains into wanting to check and engage more and more.