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

It lasted a split second. Most people probably never noticed it. Who could blame them? But after clicking on the photo I had just posted on Instagram, a white screen with black text appeared for a split second. The text, illegible at first, could only be deciphered by screen-recording the website. Then, going frame by frame, the text became readable. “Photo by Jackson Coates on Dec 02, 2021. May be Maltese and indoors image.” This text is the product of a very expensive and sophisticated algorithm. This is called an object recognition algorithm. And that’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 that Instagram compiles personal information for monetary purposes scares a majority of young consumers. “But I think a lot of people my age who know what’s going on are really scared of it,” Gram said. “Knowing that our information is bought and sold and in some way is working against us.”

It was first launched in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we saw a significant increase in the sophistication of the algorithm. In addition to identifying characters in a photo, the software could now also analyze different objects and locations. Although it has been mining and storing user information since 2015, it wasn’t until November 28, 2018 that Instagram publicly acknowledged the algorithm. However, the route Instagram used to showcase its new software was the most interesting part of the press release.

“With over 285 million people worldwide living with visual impairments, we know many people 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 things the photos may contain as you navigate through the app.”

After posting this information, Instagram received a warm response. Publications ran stories describing Instagram’s new effort as inclusive and progressive. However, many believe that this is not the real motivating factor for the object recognition algorithm. If anything, the inclusion of this is more of a benevolent by-product rather than what the software was designed for.

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

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

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

“The problem isn’t so much that marketing can be personalized,” Mourey said. “The question really is how much of the data used is considered private and what control individuals have over their personal data.” Targeted advertising is not inherently harmful to the consumer, often the consequences are specific advertisements directed at an individual. However, problems could arise in the future as large conglomerates control the majority of social media sites with very little competition.

“It’s also why politicians on both sides of the aisle have argued that companies like Meta need to be brought under control.” Mouray said. “As Meta owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, [creating] high entry barriers for potential competitors. Without any regulation, the majority of user information would be held by a small number of global conglomerates. And as algorithms become exponentially smarter and more advanced, this will only lead to a situation ripe for consumer manipulation.

In just six years, the program has grown from rudimentary software to a very complex and precise system. With Instagram’s attention focused on the future of this program, it’s not hard to imagine how complicated this software will be in the next decade. Not only can the company know your basic information (race, age, ethnicity), but they can also know more specific details about the user. Do you have a dog? A mother? A father? Are you in good health ? Are you sick? While that should be a scary thought for the majority of Instagram users who publicly upload their life details to a conglomerate’s user index, it doesn’t seem like it’s deterring any potential users. Daniel Bashara, professor of communication at DePaul, 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 and time again that we’ll give up just about anything valuable for free, convenient entertainment, and that’s exactly why these companies are able to do that in the first place. I don’t think we’ll ever get there. that social media companies do things differently while allowing us to have the same experience; data collection is built into the model, and that’s the only reason the model exists. stop using them, and it’s hard for me to imagine that happening.

Even though people complain about the idea of ​​companies selling their information, it still doesn’t seem like it’s deterring many site users in the first place. People often toss around the idea of ​​companies eavesdropping on intimate conversations. But Instagram isn’t listening; it compiles. Compiling all the information you feed. And as your digital presence becomes necessary in the modern age, the idea of ​​a company knowing all about you is a very close reality. Whether this technology will be weaponized depends on Instagram. But as it stands, it could be the most lucrative digital development in modern advertising.

About Cedric Lloyd

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