“Thanks Trisha for Making Me Your Lab Rat”

A Norms Breaching Experiment On Instagram


The society in which we live today is comprised of many different types of rules and norms. Some of which are obvious, some of which are unspoken. Some have been around for years, some that are newly developed because of social media. So what happens when we break these unspoken norms? I took it upon myself to answer this question.

Instagram has quickly become one of the most popular social media apps. About a year ago, the Direct Message feature was added. The feature allows you to send a picture and caption to only those that you select. The photo could be taken during real time, or it could be an old photo from your Camera Roll. This photo can be sent to one person or 50 people if you wanted. One of the interesting aspects of it is that you do not have to be following someone to send them one of these messages. I chose to conduct my experiment with people that I did not know, but some of my friends at school knew.

With the help of the Direct Message feature on Instagram, I was able to see several different reactions from people. This feature is rarely used my users, which sparked the variety of feedback I got. Some people were confused, some chose to ignore my message, and others got upset with me.


I chose to conduct my experiment with a variety of people. Some I have never talked to, while some I have talked to once or twice. The experiment lasted over a time period of about five days.

To begin, I had to decide what photo I wanted to send to the recipients. After I asked my friends about the subjects interests, I decided to send each of them something that would hopefully trigger them to answer my response. For example, my first subject really loves dogs, so I sent her a photo of me and my two dogs. My captions went along with the photo, and were slightly peppy. I asked them a variety of questions, and patiently waited for their responses. More details about the types of pictures and comments I sent to people are outlined in the results section.


My results mostly aligned with my predictions, in that a majority of people just ignored my message. I assume that a lot of people thought the message was some sort of spam, or that a friend had “hacked” my phone and just sent a funny message. In other cases, people blocked me, probably assuming the message was creepy. I did get some responses (along with some laughs) from my subjects.

Subject A

Subject A was the first person I experimented with. She also happens to have given me a great reaction. Take a look at our conversation:

Moments after I sent the message, Subject A screen shot it and sent it to her cousin (my roommate) asking if I was the one who sent the picture. My roommate played along and even said that my message was “kind of creepy” on my part. Here’s their conversation:

Clearly Subject A was bothered and confused by my message. After telling Subject A about the experiment, she messaged me back apologizing for “ruining” my project by not giving the proper responses. Little does she know she gave me exactly what I was looking for: discomfort.

Subject B

Subject B also gave me a good laugh. He had no hesitation at all to my question, and jumped right into the answer. Here’s the original picture message I sent to him:

His response was quite priceless:

As you can now see, Subjects A and B definitely had two completely different reactions to the messages.

Subject C

Subject C definitely threw me for a loop. He was someone I had met a few years back, but hadn't talked to since then. I sent him a different picture of me and my dogs in hopes that he would have thought it was strange. For the record, we have not known each other since we were 8 years old, so I’m not sure what he was going for there.

Things took a dramatic turn after Subject C stopped answering me.

A mutual friend sent me this text, after she was contacted by Subject C in a different group chat:

I asked if the mutual friend was able to send me the screen shot of the group chat. It went as follows:

Subject C and all their friends were equally as confused by my message. One even thought I was making fun of Subject C. I decided to let them know it was for a project, and their responses are gold.

You’re welcome, Subject C, for making you a “lab rat”! Your hilarious responses to my experiment were greatly appreciated!


When I first told my roommates about the experiment, they thought it was a pretty funny project. I was anxious to see how people were going to respond, and I was happy with the results.

We saw that multiple subjects were clearly so uncomfortable with my messages that they started group chats or conversations with other people to see if they felt the same way. Once the subjects were told that the point of the messages were for this project, they seemed to have laughed it off and were able to make a little more sense of what was going on.

I don’t think many Instagram users have figured out the point of the Direct Message feature, which is possibly an explanation for some people being confused, or not answering at all. Before this experiment, I never even thought about using it, and I’m sure I am not the only one. The wide range of reactions from my subjects just goes to show that I did indeed break a social norm. Social media apps and websites come with these “norms” and “rules” that we might not even realize we follow, until they are interrupted or broken. That is exactly what this experiment proved to me.

The experiment also showed me that people do not take the breaking of these norms very lightly, and will go so far as to block me from being able to further communicate with them. We tend to think that the people who break social norms (sometimes without even knowing it) are looked at to be “annoying”, and that is exactly what my subjects saw in me.

Not following these norms could be potentially dangerous to our online reputations. Those who take pride in their online reputations most likely stray away from breaking any type of norm. Those who don't care as much probably don't mind if every once in a while they stray from the norms. This all really helped me to understand the importance of not breaking social norms when on the internet.

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