Instagram’s Accidental Switch to Horizontal Scrolling Triggers Backlash
At the end of December 2018, a supposed bug caused what was meant to be limited test of a new Instagram format to be inadvertently rolled out all users. With no warning, the Instagram home feed was flipped sideways, with posts now arranged horizontally instead of vertically.
The format of the new home feed was strikingly similar to that of IG stories. Upon opening the app, users saw only one single photo (or ad) at a time, with comments appearing prominently below, and users could tap the screen to advance to a new post. A progress bar at the top of the screen showed how much new content was left to view.
The update also made it easier to view IG stories. Instead of having to scroll all the way back to the top of the feed to see their stories, users could simply swipe down at any time to access them.
The new horizontal layout seemed only to affect the main feed. Individual profiles still used the vertical layout.
Although the update was reversed in a matter of minutes, the backlash was dramatic, and many people took to Twitter to complain about the new layout.
In response, the company apologized and explained that the update was not meant to be widely released. Rather, it was only supposed to be tested with a small number of users.
But that begs the question: Why are they testing a new interface to begin with?
Why Did Instagram Switch to the Horizontal Layout?
One potential (and somewhat optimistic) explanation for the possible shift is that Instagram is helping people to become more responsible social media users. It’s no secret that social media addiction has become a hot topic in the media, with some people comparing the act of scrolling through Facebook with that of doing hard drugs.
Partly in response to this problem (and partly in response to complaints over the confusing IG algorithm), a July update introduced the “All Caught Up” feature that alerted users when they reached the end of new content from the previous 2 days, making it easier for them to set reasonable limitations on their screen time.
The vertical layout of most social media sites makes mindless scrolling far too easy. Switching to a horizontal interface and limiting users to seeing only one post at a time could potentially make it easier to find a natural stopping point.
A more likely reason for the potential change, however, is that Instagram is simply responding to user preference. Although this accidental update did cause a large backlash, it might actually be just what people want. They just don’t know it yet. The horizontally structured IG stories have been hugely successful. With 400 million people viewing stories every day, the popular feature has been a smash hit for Instagram.
And it’s not like there haven’t been clues to suggest that the Facebook-backed company has been planning this shift for a while now. At an April 2018 conference, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox stated that “the Stories format is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share stuff with their friends sometime next year.” They haven’t exactly been hiding their intent to shake up the traditional feed format.
Could the Potential Layout Change Affect the Way We Use Instagram?
Short answer: Maybe.
Long answer: Time will tell if Instagram decides to go through with the changes to its feed. However, if it does, we could see a change in how people use the platform— particularly how much time they spend looking at individual posts.
With only one image viewable at a time, the horizontal feed shines a spotlight on each individual post. It also makes it easier to view the entire comment section by simply swiping up. This could be good news for brands and advertisers on Instagram because it allows them to better capture users’ attention.
Considering the backlash from IG users, the future of the horizontal feed is uncertain, but we’ll be keeping an eye on the platform as it attempts to flip the traditional social media format on its head (or, rather, on its side).