What Instagram Really Is & How It Works

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

The most effective way to grow your Instagram account over a long period of time is to understand the principles of what it really is and how it works.

Instagram’s design and features will continue to change, but the core principles of what it is and how it works won’t. If you understand what Instagram is and how it works, you’ll understand what you need to do to grow on the platform and how to adapt whenever it inevitably changes. It’s truly the only way to create sustained growth over a long period of time.

In case you prefer to watch instead of read, you can find all of this article’s information in this video (and lots more on my YouTube channel so please subscribe).

So, what exactly is Instagram? Although Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, would you like you to believe that Instagram is an app that exists to help you express your individuality, share everyday moments, interact with your friends, and find support and encouragement (those are literally the words they use — see photo below), the truth is that it’s not.

I received this survey on my Instagram app a few weeks ago. They are measuring how effectively they are at making their users believe these concepts about what Instagram is and what it does for them.

The truth is that Instagram (Facebook) is a company that exists to maximize their profits. How do they do that? By selling as much of your attention as they can, at as high a price as they can, to advertisers.

Instagram’s job is to build an app that captures your attention and influences you, in order to sell that to advertisers who want to change your behavior and get you to buy what they sell. The more Instagram captures your attention and influences your behavior through their features and content, the more ad space advertisers will buy, and therefore, the more money Instagram makes.

Yes, you can express your individuality, share everyday moments, interact with your friends, find support and do many other things on Instagram, but only to the degree that it makes you and everyone else use it more, so they make more money.

That is the truth and it’s important to be clear about that because it influences every single element of the Instagram app, and therefore, every single activity that leads to growing an account on the app.

If you haven’t watched https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/, please do. I’m someone who worked at a social media company and can tell you that everything that is spoken about on that documentary is true.

So, how does Instagram capture your attention and influence you?

First, by making sure that every piece of content you see on the app is the most likely to capture your attention for as long as possible.

Second, by building features that will lead you to see that content as much as possible.

The more each piece of content captures your attention and the more effective their app features are at getting you to view more content, the more money Instagram makes.

Instagram shows you the content that is most likely to capture your attention through the Instagram algorithm. That’s why the algorithm was created and it’s what decides which content you see and when you see it on every content-surfacing Instagram screen.

It decides what content to show you on each screen by continually doing two things:

1) It studies what you pay attention to on the app to generate a model of what content captures your attention the most.

2) It uses that model to select which content to show you on each screen first.

Since each person’s attention is captured by different types of content and all Instagram screens surface content differently, the algorithm will manifest itself differently on every screen in the app, for every user.

Each screen on the Instagram app is optimized to capture your attention as much as possible. Right now, these are the main screens on Instagram and how they work:

I’m including both screenshots because most people have a different Instagram app layout so your version of the app might not look the same as mine. That being said, the principles I talk about for all screens will be the same for everyone, regardless of how your app is laid out.

Profile Page: The screen where you can see your profile on Instagram.

  • Its purpose: To get you to use Instagram more by showing you how your account looks. This incentivizes you to spend time making your account look as appealing and engaging as possible to other Instagram users (whether we’re aware of it or not, all of us are trying to portray an image of who we are on Instagram).
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: You cannot view other’s content on this screen, which means there is no available content for the algorithm to show you. You wanting to make your account look appealing to others is what captures your attention on this screen.
  • Features that get you to see more content: The red number notifications next to your username indicating that there are actions you need to take on your other accounts. This takes you out of the profile page screen into other screens that are more likely to capture your attention for longer.

Activity Feed: The screen where you can see the activity of how other accounts are interacting with you.

  • Its purpose: To get you to use Instagram more by notifying you when other users are interacting with you. This positively re-enforces the act of posting new content as well as interacting with other users. The more you post and interact with others, the more interactions you will receive (which feels good) and the more you will come back to the app, leading to you repeating this cycle, again and again.
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: The more a type of interaction and/or an interaction from a particular account captures your attention, the higher on the feed it’ll be shown to you.
  • Features that get you to see more content: When you’re not actively using the app, Instagram will send you push notifications and/or emails of the most attention-grabbing type of interactions to get you to open the app and check them. When actively using the app, you’ll get a red number notification on the Activity Feed tab and/or a drop down notification to incentivize you to check the interactions.

Posting Screen: The screen where you create and edit the content you want to post.

  • Its purpose: To make it as easy as possible for you to you create high quality content. The higher the quality of your content is, the more Instagram can use it to capture people’s attention, the more interactions you receive and the more you use Instagram.
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: You cannot view other’s content on this screen, which means there is no available content for the algorithm to show you.
  • Features that get you to see more content: None that are exclusive to this screen.

Explorer Page (w/Hashtag Feeds): The screen where you can discover content from accounts you don’t follow on Instagram. Here, you can also access the screen to search for and view hashtag feeds.

  • Its purpose: To get you to use Instagram more by making it as easy as possible for you to discover the most attention-capturing content from people you don’t follow. The more attention-capturing content Instagram shows you, the more you use the app, and the more money they make.
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: The content that is the most likely to capture your attention from people you don’t follow on Instagram. This applies to both the Explorer Page and the Hashtag Feeds that you can access through the Explorer Page.
  • Features that get you to see more content: The Explorer Page itself and its prominence as a one of the main screens is a feature made to get you to see more content. Instagram knows that the most attention-capturing content is likely made by accounts you don’t follow already, so they use the Explorer Page to show you that content in order for you to follow more of these accounts, whose content will keep you on Instagram for longer.

Home Feed (w/DM Inbox): The screen where you can discover the new content from accounts you already follow on Instagram. Here, you can also access the screen to see all of your message correspondence with other Instagram users.

  • Its purpose: To get you to use Instagram more by making it as easy as possible for you to discover the most attention-capturing content from people you already follow and care about the most.
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: The content that is the most likely to capture your attention from the people you already follow on Instagram.
  • Features that get you to see more content: Placing the DM Inbox in your Home Feed is a feature made to get you to see the content on this feed every time you receive a DM. Turning on Post Notifications achieves the same purpose.

Reels & Shopping Pages: The two screens where you can discover Reel & shoppable content from accounts you don’t follow on Instagram.

  • Their purpose: To get you to use Instagram more by making it as easy as possible for you to discover the most attention-capturing Reel & shoppable content from people you don’t follow. Basically, each of these screens is an Explorer Page dedicated to these two different content types. They work with exactly the same principles. By including them, Instagram added two extra screens where they can show you content that they think will keep you on the screen for longer. Essentially, by including the Reels & Shopping Pages, Instagram added two extra Explorer Pages to the app, with the aim of keeping you on it for longer.
  • Content the algorithm shows you to capture your attention: The Reel & shoppable content that is the most likely to capture your attention from people you don’t follow on Instagram.
  • Features that get you to see more content: The pages themselves and their prominence as a two of the five main screens is a feature made to get you to see more content. Instagram believes that Reels and shoppable content are equally or more engaging than their “regular” content so they want to show you more of them, and they do that by giving them such prominent screens and placement in the app.

If you are a business, understanding what Instagram is because it’s the key to understanding how the app works. When you know how Instagram works, you can tailor your activities and content to what the Instagram algorithm, screens, and features favor, and therefore, create a much higher likelihood of being discovered by more users on the app. In an increasingly-competitive social media landscape where Instagram traffic is expensive and hard to come by (check out my article about Is Instagram dying? to learn more about why), this can be the difference between having a successful business on the internet or not.

If you are not a business, understanding what Instagram is and how it works matters because you, your content, and your attention is the product that they sell. By knowing what Instagram actually is (not what they’d like you to believe it is) you can at least make a more informed choice of how and why you want to participate in a business that actively profits off of you.

That’s it for this one pals! Hope you find it valuable, and remember, growing on Instagram isn’t about being “cool” or “social”, it’s about understanding how the platform works and learning to execute the activities that lead to growth at a high level.

If you want to read more about how Instagram works, please check out my articles about how the Instagram algorithm works, Instagram niches and why they are the key to growth, why you’re losing Instagram followers, Instagram hashtags, how to increase your Instagram engagement, how to pick the right Instagram username, how to write an Instagram bio, the best Instagram content schedulers and automators, Instagram bots, Instagram bots 2021, the best Instagram bots, how to create an Instagram visual grid, how to create an Instagram repost account that makes money, how to check if you’re shadowbanned on Instagram, and why your Instagram account isn’t growing.

@pinlord 📌 @potteryforall 🌱 & @macramemakers 🍶on Instagram. Demystifying how Instagram works👌🏽 Follow for updates: https://instagram.com/theeduardomorales