Are You Insecurely Attached to the Instagram Algorithm?

Yim Register (they/them)
11 min readMay 16, 2023

A Mental Exercise

Am I talking about a human relationship, or your relationship to social media? You be the judge:

  • Have you ever felt the need to change yourself to better receive the love you crave?
  • Are you constantly checking for the likelihood you’ll be treated well today?
  • Are you preemptively coming up with strategies to be met with kindness instead of coldness?
  • Is your self-worth severely impacted when you don’t get attention and acknowledgment of your efforts?

What Did Researchers Do?

What if I told you that people exhibit all kinds of attachment styles to their social media experience? This blog post will delve in to the research I did alongside my colleagues, for our CHI ’23 paper: “Attached to “The Algorithm”: Making Sense of Algorithmic Precarity on Instagram.” Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2023. Yim Register, Lucy Qin, Amanda Baughan, and Emma S. Spiro. We did thematic analysis on over 1,000 comments about the Instagram algorithm, investigating how the algorithm triggered hypervigilant responses and may be related to our attachment system.

“We use the metaphor of Instagram acting as an unreliable caregiver, doling out punishments and rewards, and users responding in ways that mirror insecure attachment dynamics.”

We know from prior literature that users (both consumers and content creators) experience anxiety when algorithms change feeling decreased autonomy, increased feelings of being surveilled, and overall lack of control. This paper extends work on the nested precarities of online creative labor, by further investigating the dynamic that users feel with an ever-changing algorithm. We use the metaphor of Instagram acting as an unreliable caregiver, doling out punishments and rewards, and users responding in ways that mirror insecure attachment dynamics. We highlight the retraumatization occurring via algorithmic precarity, as well as suggest ways to foster secure attachment to uncertain algorithms.

First, we detail the variety of ways that Instagram can “punish” users, and how algorithmic precarity (uncertainty) fuels hypervigilance against the algorithm. Second, we outline the various ways that insecure attachment manifests in response to an unreliable algorithm. We finish with recommendations to foster secure attachment to social media — either via technology design or education and support for user mental health.

What is Attachment Theory?

Originally, Attachment Theory referred to the bond between caregiver and child — suggesting that caregiver reliability impacts a child’s sense of security. It is summarized below:

“The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.”

Attachment Theory has been extended to adult relationships, and even our relationship to our audiences on social media. In the most basic version, Attachment Theory says that if we receive reliable care, we can behave in a less distressed and more stable way. If the care we receive is negligent, explosive, uncertain, or invasive, we may develop insecure attachment styles — causing us severe distress, distrust, and hypervigilance when dealing with human relationships and uncertainty. Here is one overview of the different attachment styles.

Image from: https://www.insider.com/guides/health/sex-relationships/attachment-styles

What Punishments and Rewards Come From the Instagram Algorithm?

“Sometimes it’ll promote your content, and most times it’ll tell you to fuck off and you’re worthless”

Overwhelmingly, users described their relationship to the algorithm as adversarial — a “battle” or “war” that they needed to “win”. They also used the language of “reward” and “punishment”.

“So I know the algorithm is constantly learning and updating but I am under the impression that they did a big update last week (I know they implanted pinned comments, etc). Before the update, I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp on what the algorithm rewarded and punished, so I was getting solid reach on my posts. Since the update, my reach has halved.”

Users described constantly fearing a shadowban, action block, or content removal. They also described having to “act more human” so that they would not be mistaken as a bot. They described visibility and engagement as rewards, and lack of visibility or engagement as punishment. They feared a running ledger of bias against their account; where every discretion compounds into lasting effects.

“I have been shadow banned a few times noticeably though, and it was due to my hashtags and using too many similar ones I believe.. which again is annoying but whatever. How many times can you get shadow banned before you get permanently banned? Because if there’s an actual limit then I will never use hashtags again in fear of becoming permanently banned. (I have a wonderful community on there that I would be devastated if I lost connection with them all)”

Users demonstrated real distress to algorithmic changes or punishments — beyond simply annoyance. This led us to explore their hypervigilance as related to a triggered attachment system. Please note, it is entirely reasonable to be upset about these punishments and overall uncertainty!

“I have no idea if I have been shadow-banned because I use the same hashtags over and over (which I am now afraid of using ones like “fairywings” or “potionbottle” because I have used it too often even though that is literally what my product is and should be hashtagged as such) or if my views have dropped from the algorithm changing AGAIN. social media shouldn’t have to be like chess, I shouldn’t have to work THIS HARD to get just the people who follow me to see my stuff. Out of 700 people how are only 20 of them veiwing my stuff? I really don’t have the time in the day to obsess over this. Instagram is killing my small businesses and MANY others.”

“to me it sounds ridiculous. why not just tell the user if a post is inappropriate and FOR WHAT REASON and preferably before posting? so that the user can correct mistakes and create more valuable content? why not publish the rules? so that people talk about it like it’s voodoo and about “the algorithm” like it’s some internet god? who you have to please for her to like you and approve your posts?”

Hypervigilance is basically “always being on your toes”, as summed up here:

“Taking a break is tempting, especially since the engagement drop, but I think you’re right — you get forgotten pretty fast if you’re not keeping up and feeding the algorithm.”

And finally, their reactions are intimately related to feelings of self-worth:

“I believe that’s Instagrams shit algorithm, sometimes it’ll promote your content, and most times it’ll tell you to fuck off and you’re worthless (unless you pay for advertising)”

A Model of Attachment to an Unreliable Algorithm

As HCI researchers, we are not mental health professionals. However, a subset of the authors do focus primarily on mental health topics in sociotechnical contexts. This paper uses Attachment Theory as a lens to view the phenomenon occurring, but is not diagnosing or pathologizing users on Instagram. Instead, we can use all that we know from Attachment Theory and earned secure attachment to hopefully inspire designs and interventions that foster user wellbeing and secure attachment. Here we provide a model of the social media specific process of attachment activation.

A model of attachment to social media algorithms, directly paralleled from Shaver and Mikulincer’s model of the mechanism of attachment response. A user has a need, such as a financial need for their account on Instagram. They perceive some kind of threat, such as getting low engagement or a removal of their content. This leads to nervous system activation in response to the threat. Secure individuals can typically resolve their nervous system response to the threat, whereas insecurely attached individuals will each exhibit a different manifestation of distress.

Anxious Attachment Examples

This attachment style occurs when someone’s needs are not reliably met, and cannot turn to their caregiver or partner as a source of stability. They often fear abandonment, and engage in people pleasing behaviors to gain approval or reassurance. For social media users, they feel compelled to constantly keep up with the algorithm, and change their behavior to be favored. They feel a lot of distress when not succeeding in the eyes of the algorithm.

“This damn Instagram algorithm has been IMPOSSIBLE to keep up with, especially for my business pages. What’re you doing to stay on top of it? It feels like we go through week-long waves of mastering it and get a ton of engagement, then we hit rock bottom again the next week and don’t even get 100 likes or a single comment. HELP!!!!!!”

“The algorithm is an always changing brain so that means we have to constantly be molding ourself to the newer algorithm.”

Avoidant Attachment Examples

This attachment style occurs when someone’s needs are continuously dismissed or minimized. They learn to detach, suppress, disconnect, and not commit — for fear of being let down. They have high distrust of others, and withdraw even when they really do want to connect. For social media users, they express the desire to connect but that it’s “not worth it” and end up leaving the platform due to distrust that it will ever work out for them.

“It’s not worth it at all, I regret spending so much time over the years growing my art account on instagram and spending money boosting posts. The algorithm has destroyed my reach to the point that I feel all the work I put in was for nothing.”

“This is something that really upset me about the feed sorting change. Before the change was implemented on my feed, which happened in mid-late march, I would scroll from the most recent post to the last post I remember viewing, which made it really easy to know when I was caught up. Since then I’ve almost stopped using Instagram altogether because I’m just not interested in viewing content the way they’re telling me I should.”

Disorganized Attachment Examples

This attachment style is often a result of trauma. They are characterized as the most volatile of the styles — exhibiting a confusing mix of both anxious and avoidant behaviors. They can be characterized by “I love you, go away; I hate you, come closer!”. They typically show rage while still trying to please the authority. For social media users, they are angry at Instagram while still trying to follow the rules.

“Fuck instagram. They just deleted me without any warning. I censored all my pictures so they didnt show any nipples or anything. They don’t respond to my appeals. It’s not worth building a following on there when they just ban you so easily when youre making huge efforts to follow the rules.”

“Do you know what the weird thing is? I barely touch my IG account because of the drop in engagement, likes and followers. However, when I abandon it, the number of likes and followers starts growing faster than ever. However, as soon as I post to it again, the growth in likes, engagement and followers just stops. Once again, this adds credence to my theory that the IG algorithm is designed to act like drugs. They give you a taste, then when you want more, they cut you off and start demanding payment (promote). You end up paying more, getting back less and having to pay more and more to get less and less.”

Secure Attachment Examples

Securely attached individuals can better manage uncertainty and conflict. While they still may feel distress, they are able to self-soothe or rely on community when appropriate. They have a strong sense of self, self-worth, and ability to handle fluctuations in expectations due to being their own ‘secure base’. Secure attachment can be “earned” or trained. For social media users, they encourage “staying true to yourself”, “focusing on your art”, and accepting the ups and downs as simply part of the experience.

“Instagram algorithm is really messed up and even though your art is great, not many people may be able to see it. You can check some tips for growing on Instagram from other artist, try to engage with your followers and other fellow artist, or, if you want to, try some draw this in your style challenge for more exposure. Just don’t feel so much pressured about this, social media is a great tool for knowing future clients and building a community, but never forget about your art and do what makes you happy ;) ❤”

“I think the problem is probably algorithm. I’d love to fx the problem myself, but for now I’ll just keep being genuine and hopefully will get the same in return :)”

“I actively stopped looking at beauty or fashion related posts on Instagram and unfollowed everyone that uses heavy Photoshop or facetune. Then I started to only focused on posts that had something to do with my hobbies. After a while the Instagram algorithm will stop showing you beauty related posts. I’m now starting a new art project because of a post I saw on insta :)”

Towards a Secure Attachment to Social Media

While the paper provides some design recommendations for technology designers and policymakers, I will elaborate here on what we can do as individuals to foster our own secure attachment to social media.

  • Remember that the algorithm is always changing. We must radically accept that it may change from day to day, and that it has nothing to do with our worth.
  • Focus on a “why” for scrolling. Why are you on social media? Is it for your business? Is it for connection? Is it for information? Is it for joy? Is it for advocacy? On days when the algorithm is not favorable, can you get your “why” elsewhere for the day?
  • While you can learn what tends to succeed, use it as a guide not a law. Change yourself only when you think it is in your true best interest and still true to you. What may be favored tomorrow is different from today — so try to do what you genuinely like.
  • Come up with a list of social media boundaries for yourself. These should not be self-critical, like “I should stop scrolling so much!” (not a boundary) Instead, they should be framed as what you do want. Such as “once I feel inspired for my art, I will get off social media for the afternoon.” Or “I will respond to DMs once a day so that I am not overwhelmed”. Or “I will stick to my schedule even if I feel anxious to post more than I said I would”. Or “I will always follow what brings me the most joy!”
  • Commiserate and be validated with your community about how the Instagram algorithm can behave in abusive ways. Seek comfort that you are not alone.
  • Be mindful of how social media makes you feel. Use tools like unfollowing, “see less like this”, Ad Preferences, and your Likes to gain some control over what you consume.

Thank you!

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Yim Register (they/them)

Attending PhD School. Radical optimist. Machine learning literacy for self-advocacy and algorithmic resistance