By Nazanin Andalibi
Recently, when I opened Instagram, I noticed that the usual spot for checking notifications is now a “Shop” tab. The Instagram blog post announcing the redesign said that the change will support small businesses and connect people with their favorite brands and creators.
This made me pause. As a researcher who studies social media, people and society, I’m concerned about the effects of surveillance capitalism. This includes social media companies profiting from collecting user data, making algorithmic inferences about people’s preferences and using this information to target people with advertising.
Features like Instagram’s “Shop” tab facilitate surveillance capitalism, so it’s important to look at their consequences. Many people use Instagram to share their lives with other people, but the redesign is shifting the nature of the social media platform toward online commerce. This shift opens people to highly targeted advertising and makes them vulnerable to advertising that exploits their emotional experiences.
Shift to shopping
In 2017, colleagues and I showed how ad hoc communities form around the tag #depression on the platform, and how much of the discourse is to make sense of the experience of depression, record it, share it with others and exchange support with other people dealing with depression. I argued that it is important for the platform to recognize the value users find in these communities and support them, rather than ban or nudge them to go elsewhere, when they come to the platform to express themselves and build solidarity.
The notification button, represented as a heart icon, brings up a screen that indicates the interactions people have had with your Instagram presence — for example, who has liked your posts and comments. It’s likely that the notification button was the most frequently clicked tab.
When people interact with technology, they form habits. I am probably not the only one clicking the new “Shop” tab when I mean to click the notification button. It’s possible that the company did this simply to ensure that Instagram users encounter the new feature,