My Instagramming usually happens on public transport, after frantically leaving the house with a coffee in hand and a heavy book bag . This means that I tend to Instagram while holding my phone with one hand, scrolling with a free thumb, and constantly scanning my periphery to make sure I don’t miss my stop. My photo browsing happens between bumps and jostles, sometimes leading to unintended hearting and scrolling past masterpieces. My filter selection is rushed, captions are impromptu, and hashtags result from flurries of brainstorming (#wordassociations). I’m guessing these are the usual ‘gramming conditions for a number of users and in the middle of all this, it’s difficult to pay attention to what the app is doing as we engage with its features and the world around us all at once.
Today, as part of my thesis data collection, I took some time to really interrogate Instagram as an app that influences our actions and interactions. Applying a method that I’ve been developing with my supervisors (which you may have heard about at Digcult14 last year as part of our ‘hook-up apps studies’ and can definitely catch some details about at my panel presentation for SMS15 in July), I began conducting a platform walkthrough of Instagram. This method not only looks at the business and governance side of platforms, but also involves a detailed, technical walkthrough of an app – from registration, to everyday use, right up to account deletion and saying, “No, I don’t want to see anymore #sunsets!”
While it’s tempting to think that my daily use of Instagram would be enough to sensitize me to the app’s features, options, and activity flows that influence my ‘gramming, this is quite the opposite. It turns out that with the domestication of this technology into my routines, I all but forget about the social media template framing my content generation and connections with others (see Gehl 2014 for analysis of social media as templates). To highlight how the walkthrough method zooms in on the app’s shaping of user experiences, I just wanted to share one example, focusing on Instagram’s ‘search’ function.
When you tap the magnifying glass to get to the search screen and then tap the search bar, the results are empty before you type anything (unless you have a ‘search history’ – I was using a brand new account so I saw nothing). But then when you begin to type, Instagram provides suggestions of users or hashtags based on the letters you’ve entered. I was particularly baffled by the ‘people’ suggestions after typing the letter ‘a’. For the purpose of the walkthrough, I was only following 5 accounts that Instagram had suggested, so I thought maybe its search suggestions would be for similar accounts or the most followed/popular accounts. The accounts presented in the search do have a lot of followers, but the first one has fewer than the second. The second user, A-Trak, is apparently a Canadian DJ who had a part in that Barbara Streisand song from 2010, and is ‘verified’, so you’d think he would be the top result – maybe. Is there no one more famous, popular, or skilled on Instagram whose name starts with ‘a’? Not so, Akon’s verified account has 2.2m followers, which makes A-Trak’s 213k look tiny. Also, I didn’t connect my account with anything other than my Australian QUT e-mail, so why would it provide me with a Canadian in my top results?
Anyways, my questions are endless, but this is just one illustration of how the app shapes the content and people I come into contact with. If I were bored and browsing users one day on the bus, I’m sure I’d be too distracted to wonder why I was seeing certain people over others. This, of course, ties in with the increasing body of research about the opaque and profit-driven algorithms used by platforms, which shape our everyday lives (see van Dijck and Gillespie for much more on this).