Instagram’s recognition algorithm has implications on the future of advertising

It lasted for a fraction of a second. Most people probably never noticed. Who could blame them? But after clicking on the picture I had just posted on Instagram, a white screen with black text appeared for a fraction of a second. The text, unreadable at first, could only be deciphered by screen recording the website. Then, by going frame by frame, the text became readable. “Photo by Jackson Coates on December 02, 2021. May be an image of Maltese and indoor.” This text is a product of a highly expensive and sophisticated algorithm. It’s known as an object recognition algorithm. And it’s something Instagram doesn’t want you to think about.

Ian Gram, a sophomore at DePaul, was initially unaware of Instagram’s object recognition algorithm. In general, the idea of Instagram compiling personal information for monetary gain is something that frightens a majority of younger consumers. “But I think a lot of people my age who know what’s happening are really afraid of it,” Gram said. “To know that our information is being bought and sold and in some ways working against us.”

It first launched in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we saw a significant increase in the algorithm’s sophistication. On top of identifying figures in a photo, the software could now also analyze different objects and locations. Although it has been operating and storing user information since 2015, it wasn’t until Nov. 28, 2018 that Instagram publicly acknowledged the algorithm. However, the route that Instagram used to present their new software was the most interesting part of the press release.

“With more than 285 million people in the world with visual impairments, we know there are many people who could benefit from a more accessible Instagram,” an Instagram spokesperson said. “This feature uses object recognition technology to generate a description of photos for screen readers so you can hear a list of items that photos may contain as you browse the app.”

After releasing this information, Instagram was met with a warm response. Publications released articles describing the new effort from Instagram as inclusive and progressive. However, many believe this is not the true motivating factor for the object recognition algorithm. If anything, the inclusion of this is more of a benevolent byproduct rather than what the software was designed for.

“I really doubt that Instagram would spend the resources on that just to help the visually impaired,” Gram said. “As great as that is, there’s definitely other money making opportunities behind it that they see.”

Although Instagram may market this tool as a way to appear more inclusive to a marginalized community, nothing could be further from the case. Instagram wouldn’t put this much money and time into something they couldn’t monetize. And they know this. The key factor from the genesis of this algorithm has always been its potential on the future of targeted advertising.

Targeted advertising is more or less a gray area in marketing. Even though algorithms have become significantly more sophisticated in recent years, companies have been using consumer information to guide marketing strategies for years now. DePaul marketing professor James Mourey helps break down the duality of advertising tactics like these.

“The issue isn’t so much that marketing can be personalized,” Mourey said. “The issue is really to what extent the data used is thought to be private, and what control individuals have over their personal data.” Targeted advertising isn’t inherently harmful towards the consumer, oftentimes the consequences are specific advertisements geared towards an individual. However, problems could surface in the future as major conglomerates control a majority of social media sites with very little competition.

“This is also why politicians, on both sides of the aisle, have argued that companies like Meta need to be reigned in.” Mourey said. “As Meta owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, [creating] high barriers to entry for potential competitors.” Without regulation of some kind, the majority of user information would be held by a small number of global conglomerates. And as algorithms become exponentially smarter and advanced, it will only lead to a situation ripe for consumer manipulation.

In just six years, the program has evolved from a rudimentary software to a highly complex and accurate system. With Instagram’s attention focused on the future of this program, it is no leap of the imagination to picture how complicated this software will be in the next decade. Not only could the company know your basic information (race, age, ethnicity), but also it may know more specific details about the user. Do you have a dog? A mother? A father? Are you healthy? Are you sick? Although this should be a scary thought to the majority of Instagram users publicly uploading the details of their life to a conglomerate’s user index, it doesn’t seem as if this dissuades any potential user. DePaul communications professor Daniel Bashara recognizes this dynamic in the modern user.

“I don’t think the average user thinks about [their information being sold] often, if at all,” Bashara said. “We’ve shown time after time that we’ll give up just about anything precious for free and convenient entertainment, and that’s exactly why these companies are able to do this in the first place. I don’t think we’ll ever get social media companies to act differently while still allowing us to have the same experience; data collection is built into the model, and it’s the entire reason the model exists. It’s on us to just stop using them, and that’s hard for me to imagine happening.”

As much as people complain about the idea of corporations selling their information, it still doesn’t seem like it deters many users from the site in the first place. People often throw around the idea of corporations listening in on intimate conversations. But Instagram isn’t listening; it’s compiling. Compiling all the information that you feed it. And as your digital presence becomes necessary in the modern age, the idea of a company knowing everything about you is a very close reality. Whether this technology will be weaponized is left up to Instagram. But as it stands, it could possibly be the most lucrative digital development of modern advertising.