How the Instagram Algorithm Reads Your Mind


Instagram’s explosive rise is a study in modern history. While software engineers took just eight weeks to develop the photo and video-sharing application, it has continued to hold its own even after 12 years. One of the most influential applications of this generation, the Instagram algorithm has reconfigured the Internet, dictating how we share our lives with others.

In the decade following the invention of the social media site, Instagram’s algorithms have changed our lives completely. The app is a great medium for staying connected with friends and family, but behind-the-scenes it is a data mine that quietly gathers information about everything you do, and stores it for later use. Although lawmakers are trying to pass a data privacy bill, it is still a far way off. 

Instagram users
Instagram has been downloaded over 3.8 billion times. (Instagram app on a smartphone; Image Credit – Pixabay/Pexels)

The History of Instagram

Instagram was first launched in 2010, as a photo-sharing app for the iPhone. It was founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, both of whom graduated from Stanford. It registered over one million users in two months and crossed the 10 million milestone in a year.

Within two years, it was The go-to app for millennials and Gen Z-ers to share their lives with their circle. The app’s popularity and growth potential caught the eye of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who correctly identified it as a threat to FB and decided to neutralize the risk by bringing it under him. In 2012, Facebook Inc., acquired Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stock. Although it was a shockingly huge sum for a small company with just 13 employees, Facebook has reaped millions in profit and then some.

The strategic business decision proved successful, as by 2020 Instagram boasted over one billion users and contributed upwards of $20 billion to Facebook’s annual revenue.

As of 2022, Instagram’s brand value stands at almost $33.5 billion, and is one of the top then most valuable media brands in the world.

Insta-Stalking: The Official Explanation

Today, everyone fears Instagram’s algorithm, as if it is one magical know-it-all tool that oversees everything people do on the app. But on Instagram’s blog, Adam Mosseri explains that there is no one Instagram algorithm that is responsible for the workings of the site. Instead, the company uses a combination of “algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose.”

The Feed curates what you see, based on past behavior and what you care about. Every part of the app, be it Feed, Explore, or Reels, uses its own Instagram algorithm to tailor the experience for the individual user. As people mostly use Feed and Stories to keep track of their friends’ lives, Instagram uses “signals” — everything from what time a post was shared to what you liked to which device you are using — to curate your experience. The algorithms use this to predict your future behavior and accordingly modify what you see.

Instagram algorithm
Instagram’s in-app browser tracks everything you do via the app. (A hacker looks for information; Image credit – Freepik)

What Does the Instagram Algorithm Track?

Instagram prioritizes content for you by tracking three main points of activity.

Interest – The app’s algorithm tracks what sites and pages you visit. It wants to know what piques your interest and why. The posts you see on the Explore page are curated based on your behavior. It also monitors which posts you like and what kind of content you look for. The algorithm tries to mix and match things based on this, and continues to curate your Feed based on your interests.

Relationships – Instagram knows that you would like to keep a close watch on some people over others. The app monitors your relationships on the site — whom you message, how often you like someone’s posts, whom you search for etc. The app watches over your interactions and prioritizes the posts/ videos of these people on your Feed.

Timelines – Earlier, the Instagram timeline worked in a chronological order. Whatever was posted earlier, gets pushed back as new content comes in. Not anymore. Instagram’s algorithm identifies what type of content will be more engaging and enticing for you, and accordingly plays around with your timeline. The posts are arranged according to priority and will push content from your favorite accounts to your timeline.

Instagram’s Tracking Analysis

Recently, a new analysis of the Instagram app threw up some shocking findings on how much the social media platform monitors user activity. The study conducted by Felix Karuse, published in August 2022, found that Instagram monitors all activity rendered inside the app. This includes all third-party links and ads within their app using a custom in-app browser. The use of a customer browser means that the site is able to “track every single interaction with external websites, from all form inputs like passwords and addresses, to every single tap”.

Instagram monitors everything the user does throughout the in-app browser, without explicit permission from the user or the website. The app injects its own JavaScript code into every website shown, including when you click on ads. Although the injected script does not do this currently, custom scripts can give them greater access to what you do. Custom scripts on third-party websites allow the app to monitor interactions, likes, screenshots, along with sensitive data like email ids, passwords, and even credit card numbers.

In short, the in-app browser is the powerful all-seeing eye that can track everything happening on another website, including tap, input, scrolling behavior, what content is copied and pasted, what purchases are made, and even which ads are viewed. Krause also points out that building and maintaining an in-app browser requires considerable effort and is a deliberate move. He cautions that Meta Inc., Instagram’s parent company, collects any and all data that does not require explicit user permission.

With over one billion users, the amount of data that Instagram can collect is staggering and worrying.

In 2019, a Business Insider study revealed that Instagram allowed San Francisco-based marketing agency, HYP3R, to collect data on its users, including stories, photos, location, and bio, to create profiles on millions. Only after the study was published did Instagram ban HYP3R and announced that it had made a product change. However, HYP3R was not your average unknown marketing firm. It is listed as a Facebook Marketing Partner, meaning that the company is a preferred Instagram partner and that though the app has policies against this kind of behavior, nothing was done to police its tracking activity until BI raised the issue.

Instagram’s data policy admits that the app collects a wide range of data. It states, “We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our Products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content and message or communicate with others. This can include information in or about the content that you provide (e.g. metadata), such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created. It can also include what you see through features that we provide, such as our camera, so we can do things such as suggest masks and filters that you might like, or give you tips on using camera formats. Our systems automatically process content and communications that you and others provide to analyze context and what’s in them.”

Reach and Repercussions

According to Statista, the United States leads in the usage of Instagram with over 140 million users. It is followed by India with around 120 million users. For marketing, Instagram ads is one of the most preferred platforms, as according to Hootsuite, Insta ads have the potential to reach 849.3 million users. 

Instagram generated an estimated $47.6 billion revenue in 2021, and is the fourth most popular social media app worldwide. As over 70% of Instagram users are under 35 years old, marketers and influencers find it easy to showcase their products and services on the app.

How to Protect your privacy

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency forces apps to get the user’s explicit permission before tracking their data across apps owned by other companies. It is said that this feature alone is costing Facebook around $10 billion every year.

Change account settings to private – One of the simplest ways to ensure that your Instagram account is secure is to set the profile to private. This lets you have greater control on who sees your activity. In Instagram’s setting menu, go to Privacy>Account Privacy> and activate the Private Account setting.

Get rid of personalized ads – This is one of the trickiest factors as enabling this feature requires you to log into Facebook. You must go to Facebook’s ad settings, move to Your Ad Preferences page, and click on Ad Settings to reveal two options. Disable both these options – Ads based on data from partners” and “Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere.” This way, Facebook will be unable to target you with information it gathers outside of Instagram.

Despite all the safety/ privacy precautions, there is no denying that whatever you put out into the Internet stays forever. No matter how much we delete data, some traces of it will continue to exist. Not to mention, media companies often make it difficult to access this knowledge. The privacy settings are often buried underneath lots of heavy jargons, which bore you enough to log out before completing the task you set out to do.

As the Internet has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, posting any kind of information online comes with its own set of risks. Other than hackers looking to unearth your private details, potential employers and customers also use social media to run background checks on you. It is recommended that you always keep privacy-enhancing settings On and moderate what you put out into the world wide web. Another important trick is to have a good antivirus program for your devices. It provides a vital layer of security that can save you from many pitfalls.

Any comment, image, or post made online stays forever, as despite your best efforts, you do not have control over the screenshots or copies others have made. Be as cautious and sensible in your online social life as you are in your in-person social life.

The post How the Instagram Algorithm Reads Your Mind appeared first on Industry Leaders Magazine.


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