What do Instagram and Plato have in common?

Enrique Dans
· 3 min read

An article about how Instagram stores what it thinks are its users’ advertising preferences, which has prompted a game on Twitter showing how wrong they can be, led me to think about how we perceive technological companies that believe they know everything about us, when in fact they try to deduce who we are on the basis of what they see through a tiny pinhole into our lives, bringing to mind the flickering shadows in the allegory of Plato’s cave.

You can find out what Instagram knows about you by going to your profile (lower right corner), pressing the menu of the three horizontal lines in the upper right corner, entering configuration (below all), then Security, Access data and , finally, in the option below, Ads Interests. This reveals an endless list of what Instagram suppose your interests are, based either on the photos you publish or what you search for.

The results are very strange. The image shows mine, or does it? Seoul? I’ve been there once and posted some photos of it, but they’re not even on Instagram. Korean drama? How did they draw that conclusion? Money? My wife deals with it. Sports? Pretty much the same as everybody … HUSTLE? What’s that supposed to mean? Not to mention the constant repetition of issues related to the US Army, which I am not the slightest bit interested in…

The only interests it gets right are because they cover a wide range of sins: food, hobbies? Of course, like everyone. But there are few cases that that really reflect a particular interest of mine.

Is all this supposed to be the sum total of my interests? If so, it’s pathetic. A version of my life based on the photographs I upload to Instagram, which are themselves pretty random — I travel around the world and see something that I want to photograph, and Instagram thinks it can relate this to advertising. The only problem is that it fails miserably, and what’s more, I never look at advertising on Instagram.

How well has Instagram managed to guess your interests? How likely is a brand who pays for access to those interests like to succeed with a segmented advertisement? Let’s be clear: the success of one of Facebook’s most profitable divisions is based on just that. If your company pays for advertising on Instagram then carry out the following experiment: enter your advertising preferences, see how successful they are, and consider how well you are investing your hard-earned money… unless the only reason you’re advertising on Instagram is to appear “modern”, or because an agency has convinced you, or if you’re trying to find that illusive youth market segment. Think about it.

Trying to segment somebody’s interests based on the photographs he or she publishes or looks at is a waste of time: hence the results. If I post photographs of food from time to time doesn’t necessarily make me a foodie, it’s more like a particular dish caught my attention and I wanted to share it. The most likely reason I would publish 10 photographs of a city is because I’m visiting it. Instead, the geniuses at Instagram charging advertisers on the basis of their pathetic conclusions, which really does make me wonder if this is the best they can do and to realize that this is why hyper-segmented advertising is basically worthless. Somebody out there thinks I’m interested in Seoul, Korean drama and K-Pop: let’s see if they can sell me anything…


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

Enrique Dans

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Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)