“Hey, this would be perfect for mum but how did Instagram know?” Understanding how Instagram appears to be a step ahead in knowing your needs

Do you think your conversations are being listened to or that you are in some way being stalked on Instagram (IG)? I know I do sometimes. Although the jury is still out on whether or not some or all of these social media applications like Instagram, are listening in to our conversations, etc.,  it is worth noting that computer algorithms have gotten so advanced that they may seem to be doing just that but that may not entirely be the case. Let’s look at these scenarios below:

Scenario 1:

It’s Monday and Mother’s day is coming up on Friday. Abena is thinking about what to get her mother on the upcoming special day. Between Monday and Thursday, she visits her mother three times that week. 

On Wednesday evening, Instagram suggests crochet napkins to Abena. Abena suddenly recalls seeing her mother spend too much time hovering over a set of crocheted napkins at the mall some weeks back. A light bulb goes off in Abena’s head…then she wonders, how did IG know?

Scenario 2:

Kwasi finally got his first phone for his 16th birthday and is excited to finally download and enjoy all the social media applications his friends have been talking about and creating content for.

Upon signing up for Facebook and Instagram, he sees that friends, family, and people that he knows through his friends or have not been in contact with for a long time are being suggested to him. 

What is happening?!

Experts say what these applications are doing is tracking, not listening

In scenario 1, how did IG know the perfect gift to suggest for Abena?

Applications, in this case, IG specifically, collect data and use it to market, suggest or even entertain you.  In this particular scenario, location tracking plays a key role in the suggestions made by IG. Instagram is able to determine your location and who else is within that location within a period of time. In this case, Abena’s mother is likely, due to her interest in crocheted items (napkins), to have searched on Facebook (let’s assume this is the only application she actively uses) for crocheted napkins. 

Facebook and IG being ‘siblings,’ share information they gather between each other, providing the connection to why the napkins came up in Abena’s suggestions. Facebook knows that Abena and her mum are friends on Facebook, the app also knows too well that Mother’s day is coming, and since Abena is present and active on IG as well, it channels that associated content to her.

Taking it a bit further, Abena’s mother had probably visited a crochet shop with the hopes of buying a crocheted napkin set, and thanks to Facebook’s location tracking, this information is kept and shared with Abena as an ad by virtue of their connection on Facebook and record of their time spent together.  This would explain why Abena will have crocheted napkins pop up in her timeline.

For scenario two, the following example explain what could have happened:

  • Linked social media accounts:

Applications like Instagram and Facebook are owned by the same organisation, Meta, and offer the opportunity to link accounts. What happens then is that when you follow a person on one, this person is likely to be suggested in the other.

  • Application access to phone contacts:

Once you grant a social media application access to your contacts, it uses this information to suggest friends for you on the app. This works the other way as well, where a person may be suggested to you even if you do not have their contact details because they may have you in theirs. 

  • Running searches and search history:

You may have been told to look up someone in order to get the “full tea” being spilled. You spend some time on the person’s page and then leave without following or liking any of their posts. A few days later after you have forgotten the hot “tea”, the person is suggested to you.

  • Mutual friends:

You are likely to have friend suggestions from people that you have mutual friends with on the application. For instance, Ama and Kojo start dating and are connected on IG. Afi is Kojo’s best friend; Atswei is Ama’s classmate and all of them are on IG. The app algorithm is likely to suggest Atwei to Kojo and Afi for Ama to follow. The more mutual friends you have in common with a person, the more likely you are to appear in your friend suggestions.

Algorithms are getting better at knowing us based on what we do online, and the information they gather on us. We can either enjoy the pros that come with it or be cautious of our usage and the access we give these applications. 

Oftentimes, we allow cookies to be installed on our devices which makes tracking and ad customizations, among other things possible.  You can read more on cookies here.

The tracking mechanism also explains why you find Instagram showing you multiple spa ads after searching for or viewing one or more spa posts on the app.

What can you do? 

Well, unless you intend to leave social media altogether, you can consider exploring permissions, where you can limit, to an extent, how these applications use your information and how they track you.

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