Instagram is my waiting room app. I don’t use it every day, but when I have a couple of spare minutes, I like to casually check out what the people I’m following are up to.
The problem, lately, is getting to the stuff I actually want to see requires battling through a mountain of sponsored content and suggested posts. When it comes to ads on platforms, there’s a point at which a user inevitably will throw their hands up in the air and says: enough. This level is different for everyone, but for me, Instagram has not only reached it — it’s running circles around it.
Dude, where’s my content?
Let’s test this. I’ve just opened the Instagram app on my iPhone and counted 14 (fourteen) instances of ads, suggested posts, and sponsored content, in the first 16 posts on the top of my feed. I had to scroll past six ads before I got to a post by someone I actually follow. I’m not sure when Instagram became this aggressive when it comes to ads, but I don’t remember it being this bad earlier this year. A month-old Reddit post showcases the same issue, with a seemingly infinite array of ads lined up one after another.
Worse, there’s something deeply insulting by the content of the ads and suggested posts I’m seeing. Yes, I follow a couple of fitness-oriented pages, as well as wrestling pages, on Instagram. So its algorithms have decided that I must be into boxing and bodybuilding (I’m not). I’m constantly being served ads for boxing lessons, which I don’t particularly care about, and I keep seeing muscular men posing on a stage, which, again, is not my cup of tea. Instagram is relentless about this type of content; there’s little variety to it. I’m a human in 2022, which means I have the luxury of having specific, nuanced interests — I’m alright with bodyweight workouts, but not interested in bodybuilding. I can watch Brazilian jiu-jitsu videos all day, but not boxing. Maybe it’s the way I’m engaging with this content that throws Instagram’s algorithms off, but it just seems incapable of accurately predicting what I really want to see.
It’s not just me. Another Reddit thread, also from about a month ago, titled “Okay, we get it. Your feed is entirely ads,” has dozens of users complaining about how bad Instagram’s feed has become.
“60 percent of the posts on my newsfeed are from accounts I do not follow — yet there are accounts I do follow who post regularly and I don’t ever see their posts,” writes user HireLaneKiffin. “It’s gone from all my follows to every other follow and ad to as of today a three to two ratio of ads and promoted follows from the worst people and things,” writes user ilivedownyourroad. I don’t have a scientific method to determine how many ads are too many for the majority of users, but my guesstimate is that Instagram is well past it.
This behavior is spilling over to Meta’s other property, Facebook. On this platform’s feed, you’ll see at least some content from the pages and people you follow on top, but there will be a ton of ads in between, and every now and then you’ll see a suggested post from a page you don’t particularly care about — I’m looking at you, Nick’s Strength and Power. In fact, this particular page which serves bodybuilding-related content, probably has little to do with it; Facebook has decided that I must be into bodybuilding, and bodybuilding videos I will watch, so help me the almighty algorithm.
The sponsored overload is not as bad on Facebook as it is on Instagram, but Instagram may be an early warning here. A few months down the road, you might have to jump through the hoops of switching to chronological post order every time you open the app (to do that, tap “Menu,” then “See more,” then “Most recent” on the iPhone).
Can you help it? Yes, but not quite.
There are ways to alleviate this influx of ads, but Instagram is quite cunning about it. Once you’ve opened the app, there’s a little white arrow that appears next to the Instagram logo on top, letting you see content only from the accounts you’ve set as favourites. But the little white arrow only appears once you’ve scrolled past the first post — a way to force you, I reckon, to see at least one ad before getting to the content you want. Furthermore, you have to do it every time you start the app, and you also have to ardently add all the content you want to follow to your favourites, which is an additional hassle.
You can also get an Android-only unofficial app for Instagram that lets you get rid of ads altogether, but unofficial apps, besides probably being against Instagram’s terms of service, can be a way to get malware on your device.
The bottom line is that, for the majority of users, the Instagram experience is severely tarnished when you’re force fed stuff you don’t want. There’s a point at which even advertisers will start to complain, as they inevitably see engagement numbers fall from their tired and resigned audience. I’ve asked Instagram whether they think they’ve gone too far with sponsored content, and will update this article when I hear back.
I know the mantra: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the user, you’re the product being sold. But for me to consent to being sold, I need to get something back from the app or else I’ll just give up. Right now, Instagram is working very hard to make me give up.