Twitter and Instagram’s Communication Screwups

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Today, hundreds of Instagram accounts were suddenly filled with panicked posts about a change to way the Instagram feed worked, which filled certain account holders with dread that their followers would no longer see their posts. In the previous few weeks, there were similar panics among Twitter users about two purported changes to that product: removal of the 140-character limit for tweets, and an algorithmic timeline similar to that being contemplated at Instagram. What’s striking about all three of these examples is that the companies arguably only have themselves to blame for the negative reaction, which could have been avoided if only they had communicated properly with users of their respective services.

In the case of Twitter’s supposed removal of the 140-character limit, reports started to surface over the first weekend in January that Twitter was considering a change, and it took a Twitter post (one that ironically embedded a sizable text document as an image) from Jack Dorsey to address the situation.  The problem was that Twitter had allowed a rumor about a possible change to get legs for several days before the company officially addressed it. Ironically, this month Dorsey finally announced that the company wouldn’t be raising the limit after all, but that just goes to show how powerful the user backlash was.

Twitter’s actual change – to an algorithmic timeline – also met with a significant user backlash, primarily from the sort of power users likely to pick up on news reports about the service and also the users most likely to care about such a change. In the end, Twitter better explained how the algorithmic timeline would work and – importantly – made clear that it could be turned off. When many users first experienced the new timeline a few days ago, they didn’t like it, but were able to turn it off. In the end, things weren’t nearly as bad as some users worried, but Twitter did itself a huge disservice by not explaining this better from the beginning.

And now we have Instagram’s equivalent moment – the company announced a few weeks ago that it would be introducing an algorithmic feed which would show the most “meaningful” posts first. However, it didn’t make clear exactly how this would work, and importantly didn’t specify whether users would be able to choose between this new feed and the current feed. As a result, and given Facebook’s history of making a similar change, many brands and creators on Instagram were understandably worried that their posts would suddenly become invisible to users. Then, at some point in the last 24 hours, a rumor (false, as it turns out) began to spread that the change would happen today. Hence, something like a game of what we Brits call Chinese Whispers and Americans call Telephone happened, and you had all those panicked posts on Instagram.

In all these cases, if the companies had just done three things, all the user backlash could have been avoided:

  • Communicate about the change before (or immediately after) rumors start
  • Make clear exactly what is planned, and when it will take effect
  • Specifically make clear that the changes will be optional rather than forced on users. (To be clear, we still don’t know if this will be the case on Instagram, but it absolutely should be).

Instead, you have overreaction by users, a huge backlash against something that may not even be happening (or may not be as bad as people fear), and a PR nightmare, all of which could have been avoided. I expect that to some extent any change to a major service that’s used by hundreds of millions of users will trigger some amount of panic, but in all three of these cases, the reaction has been much worse than it needed to be, and the companies only have themselves to blame. Nature and the Internet both abhor a vacuum, and when companies fail to communicate clearly, their users often fill in the gaps with worst-case scenarios, which serves no-one well.