Reels of Fortune: Instagram-shaped memories for a bigger reach

The algorithm used to do it for us, now we do it for the algorithm: Platforms seek data on what people think good memories are. One user tells us how she constructs an end-of-year Recap Reel on Instagram.


10 March 2023


Foto von Jon Tyson auf Unsplash

From Spotify compiling your top songs to activity apps like Strava summarizing your best runs, personalized year-in-review playbacks were all the rage at the end of last year. Following this trend, Instagram, like its rival TikTok, prompted its users to create a Recap Reel for the first time in December 2022. 

Reels are short, edited video clips of up to 90 seconds that are usually accompanied by audio and visual effects. For its Recap Reels, Instagram provided four templates of different lengths, where users could choose voiceovers by artists. Why not have DJ Khaled accompany your memories by saying:”Okay, bless up 2022. Here’s looking at you. […] Memories that shaped this year and made this thing called life a blessing.”

Memories made for you vs memories made by you

Early on, tech companies discovered that users’ emotional connection to the memories they made on their platforms is an important factor in user retention. Facebook introduced a Year-in-Review feature in 2014 where a slideshow of personal highlights was algorithmically curated. The algorithms had to be tweaked a year later to only show ‘happy moments’ because they included images of deceased loved ones. Facebook applied “a unique set of filters” preventing memorialized accounts and blocked friends to show up in the reviews. They also added an editing option to the reviews in case the algorithms included an unwanted face.

David Beer, a professor of sociology at the University of York, researches "the automatic production of memory.” According to him, a DIY feature like Recap Reels, where users spend hours deciding for themselves what to remember, "will also be generating data about what people think are good memories that they can then use, in the future, in automated systems… from these manual approaches [the platform] gets information about how to categorize and rank memories in the future."

Recapping for the Gram

Alison, 35, is from North Rhine-Westphalia and owns a small business that produces personalized children’s décor. She enjoys Instagram as a creative outlet, but also wants to grow her professional network. “I’m not only posting for myself but also so that others can benefit from it. So that they are positively affected and maybe can recognise themselves in it too.” 

Alison had never created a Recap Reel before, but after seeing them in her Instagram feed, she decided to make her own and posted it on New Year’s Eve. For Alison, creating a Reel was a unique way to look back at the past year and take stock. 

The Reel starts with a caption reading “Bye 2022” and is followed by a quick succession of images showing her two daughters painting and playing as well as a colorful bouquet of flowers. The Reel also contains clips of her pushing a pushchair and her youngest daughter walking along a path in the woods. It finishes with the caption “My wish for 2023”, thus making a strong connection between the memories we’ve just seen and Alison’s hopes for the year ahead. 

Instagram gives users creative freedom in personalizing recaps. Instead of using one of Instagram’s templates, Alison chose piano music and a sound bite that says “And with that, the 2022 season comes to an end” over the visuals. She likes to keep a sense of coherence. “The music must fit,” she says.  

Alison believes that “the first 3-5 seconds decide whether viewers finish the Reel or not”. It took her about an hour to edit the pictures and clips together. “I thought about which video sequence I should choose first. How do I connect it? I was trying to catch people’s attention so that they stay engaged and interested and don’t scroll on.”

The rise of video content

Inspired by the huge success of TikTok, a platform notorious for its recommendation algorithms, Instagram announced that it was moving all of its video content to the Reel format in July 2022 to offer a “more immersive and entertaining way to watch video”. Since then, Instagram has made Reels front and center of the app’s user interface and massively pushed Reels into people’s feeds and explore pages.

Algorithms have played a crucial role in promoting this new product, as they favor video content over images. Reels are marketed as more engaging and entertaining. They capture people’s attention for longer, which is beneficial to social media sites that need to satisfy advertisers to secure their own revenue growth. 

Despite high-profile pushback against Reels, many users have adopted the short snarky videos. Alison is very aware that Reels are favored by Instagram’s algorithms and increase the likelihood of being seen by people who are not following her account. Alison can track the views as well as the gender, region, and age of her viewers through her account’s analytics. She can also see that “the reach of Reels has so far always been bigger” than for her pictures. 

On the one hand, Alison believes that, once you work out what content performs well and why, algorithms are helpful in gaining visibility and finding like-minded people. “On the other hand, everything is already a bit prescribed, you know? When you do this, then this and that will be well received. You have to figure out for yourself how to balance this out.” 

Reels upgrade our memories 

As Reels have risen in popularity, we can see how personal memories are being curated in a way that pleases the algorithm. To Alison, Reels are mainly a positive experience: “I find it more beautiful when you can rewatch a year in moving images. I think you can convey more emotions. And of course, you’re reaching more people through it.” 

Alison’s oldest post is from 2015 - over the years she had phases of not being very active on the platform. Now that she is putting more effort into her account again, she is finding that it’s a nice way to journal her everyday life “because usually you don’t do anything with the pictures you have on your phone.”

Looking back at her profile over the years, Alison has deleted posts she felt no longer represented her or didn’t suit the account from an “aesthetic point of view”. Perhaps one day, her recent Recap Reel will have a similar fate.

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Dr. Jennifer Krueckeberg (she/her)

Former Fellow Algorithmic Accountability Reporting

Jennifer has recently completed an EU-funded PhD in anthropology in which she explored how digital media affect young people’s personal memory practices. Before embarking on her PhD, she worked as Lead Researcher at a London-based non-profit organization researching facial recognition, data exploitation, and surveillance in schools. As part of her fellowship, Jennifer investigated the impacts of algorithms on education, surveillance, and people’s everyday lives.