Law in the Internet Society

Instagram: The Fallacy of Control

-- MariaLedesma - 22 Oct 2021


“I am in control of my experience on Instagram,” or so the company would like its users to believe. In an effort to foster a more positive use of the social media app after evidence from internal research revealed use of the app negatively impacted some account holders’ mental health, Instagram partnered with nonprofit organizations to promote what it calls “emotional resilience.” As part of this effort, videos containing daily affirmations, such as the fallacy cited above, were recommended to its users, particularly teens. In addition to these daily affirmations, Instagram also tested more interface-specific changes, such as the option to hide the number of likes on all of the posts on one’s feed, to “depressurize” people’s experience on the app. However, while changes like the latter ostensibly “give people control over their experiences” on the app, they do not fundamentally alter its function. As analyzed below, if users are truly committed to a digital life free of the app’s control, they are better off deleting their accounts.

How Does Instagram Work?

Like other social media apps, Instagram connects people all over the world through its photo and video sharing platform. Internal data from its parent company, Meta Platforms, Inc. (formerly known as Facebook, Inc.), indicates that as of June 2018, over a billion Instagram accounts worldwide were active monthly, while as of September 2017, over 500 million accounts worldwide were active daily. But the app does more than connect people to other people (or more specifically, to others’ personal accounts); in recent years, business accounts have developed a sizable presence on the platform. For instance, as of October 2019, 90 percent of account holders followed at least one business on the app, while today, users visit more than 200 million business accounts on the platform globally daily. The increase of businesses on the app has not only contributed to an expansion of the services provided by Instagram – for example, in addition to posting and liking photographs and videos, users can now shop directly through the app by clicking on tags and links in businesses’ posts – but it has coincided with the transformation of the platform into a marketing-driven profit-making tool. That is, in recent years, targeted advertising has become a prominent feature of the app. Businesses can now use the platform to create and share advertisements based on their target audience’s location and demographics, including age, gender, and interests. The platform even informs businesses that they can “target [their] ad[s] to people based on what they do off of Instagram.” According to Instagram, this practice ensures that the “people receiving the ads are ones more likely to be interested in [the] product, app or service.”

The impact of this marketing strategy on the platform cannot be overstated. Instagram has generated substantial revenue from target advertising. In the United States alone, while in 2018, Instagram accumulated $6.18 billion in advertising revenue and $9.45 billion in 2019, the company is expected to generate over $18 billion in revenue this year. Hidden in these figures, however, is the major role that teenage users of the app play in the company’s digital marketing scheme. As the New York Times recently reported, starting in 2018, after metrics indicated that the company was losing its hold on teenagers to other social media platforms, Instagram designated almost the entirety of its global annual marketing budget – $67.2 million in 2018 – to targeting teenagers through digital advertisements. Although the company waved this marketing strategy off as unsurprising given that “teens are one of [their] most important communities because they spot and set trends,” marketers acknowledged that focusing this narrowly on an age group is highly unusual. Today, with a budget of almost $400 million allocated to global marketing, the company’s singular focus on its teen users not only reflects the importance of this base to Instagram’s continued growth but the success of advertisements in impacting users’ experience on the app.

Takeaways for Users

With this context in mind, it is easy to see how being on Instagram today leaves little room for individuals, particularly teens, to truly control their virtual experiences. While it is still the case that users have control over what they share and to some extent whom they choose to follow on the app, in the end, their activity both on and off the platform is insidiously surveilled by Instagram/Facebook and marketers to better target the advertising content they will ultimately consume on their feeds. Interestingly, despite all the interface changes announced by the company to “give people control over their experience,” there is no feature to turn off advertising generally nor targeted advertising in particular on the app. Users can, however, limit Meta’s background data collection from other apps and websites, which is largely responsible for the advertisement content users see on their feeds based on their activities off of Instagram. However, this does not mean that they are ultimately free of all advertising on their accounts since their activity on Instagram itself generates advertisements.

Thus, to truly exercise control over their virtual experience on the app, users are better off deleting their accounts. Given the profitability of targeted advertising for Instagram, without it, the app as users know it would simply not exist. In effect, we are past the point of thinking about Instagram as a place where users connect with one another. While to some users, deleting the app may seem like a drastic measure, it is the only way they can meaningfully rid themselves of Meta’s continued monitoring of their behavior both on and off the platform in order to shape their experience on the platform. As such, the onus is now on users, rather than Meta or Instagram, to take the reins over their online presence if they are truly committed to living in a virtual world free of Mark Zuckerberg’s surveillance.


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r3 - 05 Jan 2022 - 18:49:39 - MariaLedesma
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