Instagram has clearly engrained itself as a part of modern culture and that can in large part be attributed to its use of data analytics keeping users on the app and continuing to scroll.
Instagram users across the globe have grown exponentially since Instagram’s founding in 2010, reaching over 1 billion monthly average users in December 2020 and Instagram has been downloaded by over 35% of the US population.
The Instagram app is organized into personalized feeds, the Explore page, and targeted advertising and data analytics is present across all three.
If you have an Instagram account, you might follow hundreds of accounts, but you won’t see all of their posts on your feed. Instagram uses a proprietary algorithm to personalize your feed to your unique usage patterns. Even if you follow the exact same accounts as a friend, your feed will show you different posts based on how you interact with those accounts. Instagram uses a unique combination of who you follow, how long you spend on Instagram, and how you react (eg., like, comment, share) to similar posts to decide what you see in your feed. While users have expressed frustration that the feed no longer follows a chronological order, there is an aspect of unknown that is created by the personalized feed that keeps users coming back for more.
A quick look through the Explore page might have you questioning how Instagram knows you as well as it does. The platform uses machine learning to use “word embedding” to determine how related two accounts are to each other. Then, it identifies “seed accounts” that you interact with the most. By putting the two together, Instagram determines what is shown on your Explore page. The Explore page acts as a way to keep users on the app because they are curating the exact content that you want to see.
Like most social media platforms, Instagram sells ads. However, on Instagram they might seem more targeted than most. That is because Instagram is collecting an immeasurable amount of data on you – from what you look at and how long you look at it for to when and where you were looking at it. This has allowed Instagram to be incredibly targeted with their use of advertising and earned $20B of revenue in 2019.
There are a few ways Instagram is using big data in a more altruistic way – which debatably is self-serving as yet another way to keep you on the platform, or said differently to keep you from wanting to leave the platform. Instagram uses AI to help filter out spam messages to keep its users safe and their accounts secure. Instagram has tried to target bullying and offensive language by using AI to read users posts and alert them when their posts may be perceived as offensive based on past reports.
One area where we will certainly see data and social media converge is in its handling of misinformation. Currently, there are still huge open questions as to how social media sites will be able to deal with misinformation in a sustainable and fair way. Recent political and societal events, along with the continued global pandemic, continue to bring this to the forefront as a significant issue.
While Instagram’s use of big data has certainly kept users on the platform, it’s worth considering the ethical implications – is continued scrolling a good thing? Most recent research into mental health would strongly suggest the opposite. In a 2018 British study, of 1000 young adults surveyed, 41% of them disclosed social media mad them feel anxious, sad or depressed. Social media sites like Instagram are designed for users to post a curated highlight reel of their life, which likely is out of touch with reality, and drives a culture of “FOMO” (i.e. fear of missing out) among viewers of their photos. Such FOMO leads to the anxiety, sadness and depression cited in the British study. Tragically, the leading cause of death among pre-teens is suicide. While a causal link between the rise in pre-teen suicide and social media use has not been fully validated, it is impossible to ignore the positive correlation between the rise in pre-teen suicide and the rise of social media use. Because of this, a new term has emerged – “doomscrolling” – which highlights the negative reinforcement that scrolling through social media can have on our brains. Doomscrolling was recently added as a word to Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching” list, suggesting the phenomenon is here to stay.
1 Mansoor Iqbal, “Instagram Revenue and Usage Statistics (2021)”, Business of Apps, March 8, 2021, https://www.businessofapps.com/data/instagram-statistics/#10, accessed March 21, 2021.
2 Josh Constine, “How Instagram’s Algorithm Works”, TechCrunch, June 1, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/06/01/how-instagram-feed-works/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMA_uMzEr177V-pTirTlL99oKrKf43KJwbiZU45G9FkY0pAk163s9YLzC3PSzEkfKgwNk-nsjbKXVzfw-AHsi4UuR4n_i7F7Y03af-XuE2SLcsC8OId3nym1TsoqOMKlTlJ9dAZ8HgK8o0Qy2TrnuxrC7I7t5SNtXlaPMwr2GcE2, accessed March 21, 2021.
3 James Vincent, “Instagram explains how it uses AI to choose content for your explore tab”, The Verge, November 25, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/25/20977734/instagram-ai-algorithm-explore-tab-machine-learning-method, accessed March 21, 2021.
4 Matt Burgess, “How To Stop Instagram From Tracking Everything You Do”, Wired, June 14, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-stop-instagram-from-tracking-everything-you-do/, accessed March 21, 2021.
5 Ashely Carman, “Instagram brought in $20 billion in ad revenue last year, more than a quarter of Facebook’s earnings“,The Verge, February 4, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/2/4/21122956/instagram-ad-revenue-earnings-amount-facebook, accessed March 21, 2021.
6 Mallika Rangaiah, “How Instagram Uses AI and Big Data Technology”, AnalyticSteps, February 17, 2020, https://www.analyticssteps.com/blogs/how-instagram-uses-ai-and-big-data-technology, accessed March 21, 2021.
7 Oliver McAteer, “Gen Z is quitting social media in droves because it makes them unhappy, study finds”, PRWeek, March 9, 2018, https://www.prweek.com/article/1459149/gen-z-quitting-social-media-droves-makes-unhappy-study-finds, accessed March 21, 2021.
8 “The Social Dilemma: Social Mediayou’re your Mental Health”, McLean, February 9, 2021, https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health, accessed March 21, 2021.
9 Maeve Walsh, “Youth suicide is on the rise and social media, mental health issues are playing a role” The Columbus Dispatch, March 4, 2020, https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200304/youth-suicide-is-on-rise-and-social-media-mental-health-issues-are-playing-role, accessed March 21, 2021.
10 “Everything You Need To Know About Doomscrolling And How To Avoid It” Cleveland Clinic, September 1, 2020, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-doomscrolling-and-how-to-avoid-it/, accessed March 21, 2021.
11 Angela Watercutter, “Doomscrolling Is Slowly Eroding Your Mental Health”, Wired, June 25, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/stop-doomscrolling/, accessed March 21, 2021.