Now Instagram is taking one of its most obvious strengths one step further. The company announced today that for a beta test with 20 major brands, including Zara, Nike, and Warby Parker, users will be able to make purchases and manage their orders without ever leaving the app. By removing the need to go to a third-party website and manually enter payment information, Instagram eliminates much of the remaining friction of the already-too-effective experience of being advertised to on its platform.
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Making checkout easy will likely only improve what’s already one of the best shopping experiences online, while simultaneously providing Instagram with even more detailed data on what its users like to buy. In that convenience lies an existential threat to users: By making its advertising feel like a service to customers, Instagram and its parent company help disguise their oft-criticized surveillance and data-collection practices as a boon to people’s everyday lives, rather than a problem of consumer privacy.
Instagram is useful in part because there is too much stuff on the internet and most of it is organized poorly. If you want to buy a pair of shoes, you can look at retailers you already know, but finding a new brand or different look is still mostly dependent on those retailers deciding to carry something novel. Google doesn’t do you much good unless you already know something exists, and most lifestyle and shopping blogs that would have provided curation before social media have migrated much of their efforts to Instagram. It’s hard to browse the internet like people browse a mall, because there’s nowhere to stroll and let something to catch your eye.
That’s where Instagram comes in. “It’s a place to experience the pleasure of shopping versus the chore of buying,” a representative said in a release about the new shopping features. For small brands, creating an ad is similar to how regular users create their own posts; like Facebook, the app allows companies to hyper-target their audience and work within whatever budget they might have.
“Instagram provides this really ideal environment for advertisers to insert themselves in, both aesthetically and ideologically,” says Emily Hund, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies social media’s consumer culture. “Brands can create ads that fit nicely within the visuals that users are already seeing, and they can present themselves as well edited or quirky or cool.”
Instagram isn’t forthcoming about how its ad-targeting algorithm works or what information is taken into account when serving ads to users, but a representative for the app tells me that it considers Facebook and Instagram usage data, as well as the other websites members visit and the apps they use, to help determine who sees what. In my experience, getting the app to show me ads for a particular thing is the commercial equivalent of saying “Bloody Mary” in the mirror three times, except it works. Beyond the interactions I have and the things I look at on Instagram itself, if I do a little searching for a type of product on a device on which I’m logged into Instagram, that seems to coax the platform’s ad algorithm into action. I once half-jokingly wrote on Twitter that I wanted Instagram to show me towel brands, and soon the towels came for me.