The first product I ever bought directly from an internet ad was a pair of Nike VaporMax sneakers, which cost $200 and were a rosy shade often referred to as “Millennial pink.” The shoes appeared while I was tapping through my friends’ Instagram Stories, and it was a sales pitch so perfect for me, a Millennial sneaker fanatic, that I felt concerned about how well Nike and Instagram apparently knew my taste. That feeling was coupled with a vague sense of shame that advertising had worked on me (not to mention the price). That unease was overcome by how badly I wanted the sneakers, so I swiped up to go to Nike’s website.
Like many people young enough to have shopped online for their entire adult lives, I tend to tune out traditional internet ads automatically, a behavior so common that it threatens the viability of online media. But Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, may have cracked the code. The app’s treasure trove of user data, combined with its pretty, advertising-friendly aesthetics, do an unnervingly good job of getting past the defenses of even its savviest users. I often feel like Instagram isn’t pushing products, but acting as a digital personal shopper I’m free to command.
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.
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.
After I realized how easy it was to steer into the surveillance skid, it was hard to resist trying to use the app’s insistence on mining my data for some kind of personal benefit. Instagram probably knows more about me than my parents do, and it certainly knows more about people like me, which makes me feel like it’s doing some kind of work on my behalf. Amazon might show me endless options when I search its massive inventory for boots, but Instagram knows I’m single and relatively young and live in Brooklyn and have disposable income and want something cool. Instagram also knows what cool is, according to Hund, because its army of influential power users have spent years teaching both their followers and the app itself.
There’s a name for this phenomenon I’ve given into, the feeling that data collection is so inescapable that I might as well live with it: digital resignation. Coined by the researchers Nora Draper and Joseph Turow, digital resignation happens when people see no way out of the privacy invasions that have become a common feature of their digital lives, and instead look for ways to live within them as a new normal. Draper says that in a survey on the phenomenon, people who knew about how social media work were likely to see no escape from its invasive realities.
I do feel resigned. I know Instagram and its culture seep into parts of life far away from the internet: how people’s bodies look, how they create the spaces they live in, and how their beliefs about health are formed. My personal abstention from using the app can’t exempt me from those things, so why not have it shop for me?
Draper notes that by pushing people to simply make do with the situation they’re already in, such resignation can “discourage the larger or collective types of action that might actually have substantial consequences.” That’s exactly the problem: Instagram might be willing to hand me the keys to cultural approval, but the algorithm doesn’t dole them out equally. Instagram will only shop for me because I’m the type of person corporations already consider important. People who are thought of as good consumers—usually white and affluent—will have a kinder, gentler experience with surveillance than people whose influence or opportunities get curbed.
Being resigned to the fringe benefits of my situation, however convenient, encourages me to accept the unequal playing field. “This idea of separating and segmenting audiences is inherently a statement of power,” Draper says. “Who matters and who is valuable?”
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