Will the IG Pod Outsmart the Instagram Algorithm?

Last year, the photo-sharing network Instagram made a game-changing alteration to the way that users interact with their feeds. Instead of showing every photo chronologically as it is posted, the network adjusted to an algorithmic format, wherein users see photos that the network says are “ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.”
While this may sound like a reasonable shift based on the way that other social media outlets operate, anyone who is familiar with the network can tell you that it was certainly a seismic one. Users accused the network of undoing its “pure” quality and undermining the appeal of a network where everyone’s content could be treated with the same weight. One commentator on Forbes noted that “Instagram, owned by Facebook, seems to work in mysterious ways. To put it simply, Instagram has made it harder for your posts to reach your entire following.
Things have settled down a bit now that users have gotten used to the new system. However, where there is an algorithm, there will be people who are trying to manipulate it; Instagram is certainly no different. Recently, the fashion and technology website Racked detailed how certain cliques of fashion bloggers and social media influencers are creating “pods” on the network to boost their posts ranking in the algorithm. As Racked described it: “An Instagram pod is a group of (hopefully) like-minded creators who agree to comment on and like one another’s work in the hopes of boosting its visibility. Right now, Instagram pods are still underground. But pods are certainly growing. [One] group has almost 100 people in it, split into six groups that function as pods or squads.”
The idea for the pods is based on the assumption that Instagram’s algorithm highly favors any content that receive lots of likes and comments within the first few minutes of being live. The members of these pods give each other that competitive edge by committing to post on one another’s photos within that crucial time frame in the hope that the network will that show that post to more eyeballs, thereby securing more genuine engagement. It sounds straight-forward—and the “pod” tactic is known to work on Facebook—but nobody knows for certain if that is in fact how the algorithm works.
As the Racked report went on to say: “Instagram’s algorithm is individualized based on the engagement habits of each user. If I heart all of my best friend’s posts, her stuff pops up at the top of my feed. No amount of engagement on a post will cause it to jump to the top of my personal feed. Where the pods might work, though, is in the mysterious Explore tab.”
Whether pods are an effective way to boost further engagement on a post is still up for debate. However, what is certain is that there has been an unintended side effect for agencies and brands who look to social media influencers and bloggers to hawk their products. Generally, endorsements or sponsored posts are quantified by the amount of feedback they receive. In other words: more likes and comments mean more payoff for the person posting it. However, these pods make it difficult to decipher if the engagement influencers are garnering is “meaningful engagement,” as the industry calls it.
This is a downside for brands, as they want to make sure the money they’re spending on sponsored posts is indeed reaching their target demographic. On the upside, it could be good for bloggers themselves. If they are able to pass the pod engagement off as genuine, they could see themselves with a higher profile and more offers for sponsored content deals.