It would be understandable if you thought “Throwback Thursday” was moved up due to the holiday this week. Influencers have started asking their followers what kinds of photos they’d like to see, using the prompt “Show me a photo of…” in the question tool in Instagram Stories. Many of the requests seem to be nostalgic: the pics posted in response are often of  weddings, the influencers as children, and past holidays past are sprinkled in among the closets and breakfasts. While it’s impossible to know where the trend started at this point, I first noticed how widespread it had become when two very different accounts posted the question: A foster family in San Diego and a home renovation account in England. 

It’s a cute idea, and influencers are probably looking for new ideas get through the holidays and close out this indeterminable year. But it’s clearly also a great strategy  to drive up engagement, that elusive algorithm-booster. 

In the never-ending quest to best the algo, Instagrammers have tried everything: endless hashtags, engagement ‘pods,’ and promises to reply to every comment on a post. While Instagram’s algorithm remains a black box, some things are accepted as a given at this point, especially that engagement = good. “Engagement” itself can be a squirrely thing to define, but is generally is about how many people interact with your posts. What counts as an interaction is also up for debate: Some influencers claim emojis aren’t read as comments, and others insist that comments have to be at least three words long. Most of this, like whether or not engagement on stories even matter, is conjecture. But, in lieu of hard facts, conjecture and even superstition can be powerful forces. 

Lack of information can also make these supposed best practices hard to disprove. Did all this oversharing work? For people already deeply engaged with a creator’s content and who would view a story no matter what, it probably didn’t make a difference. But commenters on the subreddit Blogsnark also complained how long it made everyone’s stories, and how multiple influencers suddenly had these excessively long stories all at once. The super-long stories could easily depress engagement, as followers become overwhelmed with a long story and simply move on. Canny Redditors even questioned the authenticity of some of the questions, wondering if influencers faked them, asking for pictures themselves that they knew they could quickly share. 

“One girl had a collage of her ex & she’s been married for 5 or so years,” one observer noted

Of course, not ever Instagrammer who jumped on the trend might have been thinking about engagement. Some probably just thought of it as a fun way to pass time. Trends and mimicry, from challenges to misguided black squares in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, move fast and furious on Instagram. 

Often, the algorithm is held up as an invisible hand guiding our experiences on social media platforms, driving us further and further into bubbles where people look and think like us. Less insidious, but no less real, is the way in which our understanding of the algorithm, true or not, shapes how we experience Instagram, and even how we post on it.