Instagram is the best place to get visually connected with other people and it is has been convincing us for quite a while that it may also be one of the coolest places where you may want to shop.
Mobile phones have revolutionised the way we browse at retailers' sites and shop and Instagram has been trying to contribute to the change since November 2016 when it started experimenting with a shopping feature.
After more tests in June this year, Instagram launched in September its "Explore" shopping channel and shoppable "Stories". The former allows users to browse dedicated shopping-tagged posts from the businesses and brands they follow or discover new labels they might like globally (this is easily done thanks to algorithms that analyse who or what you're following and what kind of shopping content engages you).
"Stories" gives consumers additional info on the products shown and the possibility of clicking on the shopping bag sticker that appears on that particular story being posted. After clicking on the shopping bag, users can buy what they see on the retailer's site (brands will be able to see the number of taps on their shopping bag and this will help them getting immediate information on consumers' responses).
There are rumours about Instagram developing its own standalone Shopping app (IG Shopping, according to some sources), so that users won't have to go to the retailer's site to do the final payment. The Instagram checkout may speed up the shopping process, marking Instagram's major expansion into e-commerce.
The standalone shopping app could also be good news for independent artists and creative minds who have perfectly edited Instagram accounts and who may want to move from over-saturated e-commerce sites such as Etsy or Amazon Handmade.
That said there may be other issues linked with Instagram shopping, not all of them very positive. When the social media platform was launched it seemed to be an optimistic place for joy and happiness, but, little by little, things changed.
Everything is currently incredibly perfect in the Insta-world: well, actually everything and everyone is incredibly perfect - but you.
Cats cutely high-five people with their fluffy paws on Instagram (but in real life your cat has been planning to kill you for a decade or so and deeply regrets not having accomplished the cruel task...); people look incredibly good while they are having breakfast (but you live those traumatic moments between getting out of bed/having a shower/having a coffee on autopilot and possibly with closed eyes); food is always arranged in super neat ways on perfect design dishes (but your dishes are all chipped and, well, we won't mention your food...).
There's no stain on the clothes of babies appearing on Instagram (but in real life you're considering starting to burn your children's clothes in Burberry style to permanently remove stains in varying shade of poop brown and vomit orange/ochre); children show incredible skills at art, music and ballet on Instagram (but yours have just greeted your best friend showing their true innate talent - burping aloud in inappropriate situations) and most people you follow seem to have managed to acquire a perfectly sculpted body in the last three months (while you've finally decided on giving up on that decade-long gym subscription that didn't do much for your body and soul).
In a nutshell, Instagram is often a factory of perfect lies and unreal lives that has an impact on the users' mental health.
Studies and researches by institutions conducting inquiries on people's well-being showed that social media platforms à la Instagram have so far contributed to our collective low self-esteem. So, you naturally wonder, if Instagram has modified our behaviour, could it also modify our shopping habits?
Instagram hopes to "inspire" consumers to purchase things, but does inspire in this context mean to generate desire and gently present you a product or fascistically dictate what you should be wearing?
Because so far we have seen just examples of the latter in the form of posts by influencers: July's Saddle Bag-gate (consisting in various influencers posting on the same day pics of themselves in the just released Dior bag) allowed the accessory to reach its hip status and saturation point in 24 hours, and there are interesting stories involving beauty influencers and intestine battles between cosmetics brands paying influencers thousands of dollars to produce negative comments and reviews of a competitor's product.
If many people developed pressures of sustaining an online persona, will the next stage for consumers be developing pressures of sustaining an online shopping habit and seek approval by other shoppers?
That's not all, though: the fashion industry may end up being more affected by Instagram shopping than it already is. At the moment quite a few designers create and quite a few buyers buy with a specific question in mind "Would this garment/accessory look good in a picture?"
This means that bright prints, colourful surface elaborations, glitter and sequins and other assorted visually striking effects may end up being favoured in place of more wearable and more durable (yet less visually striking pieces - example: a plain cashmere jumper in a neutral shade is more luxurious than a brightly coloured tinsel jacket, but the latter has more impact on Instagram and easily wins more likes and more followers, would it therefore win more consumers?).
Algorithms personalise content and "curate" (yes, it is difficult not to hate such a word) it, but customised feed can easily manipulate a user's tastes, influencing a political vote, or redirecting someone's brand loyalty.
New algorithms may end up influencing our choices or even bypassing our choices by imposing something on us, think for example about Facebook (that acquired Instagram in 2012) developing the FBLearner Flow.
This machine learning platform allows to target a user studying and analysing their behaviour on the basis of previous choices and decisions; this means that the algorithm knows a user so well to be able to anticipate that user's behavior, needs, desires and purchases.
Predicting future behaviour means that users may be sold a product via predictive shipping (advertisers send you what you want before you even order).
This represents the greatest change in retail: in the past businesses would understand if a product was successful after the advertising campaign had run, now the point is not getting the advert out to sell something, but modifying the desires of consumers and their behaviour by altering and adjusting their feed so that they buy something. In a nutshell while you're being sold something, you are actually also on sale.
The problem at the core of these new shopping features or algorithms being used by Instagram and Facebook is not the technology per se, but the way it is used to manipulate people.
Want to shop for what you want rather than for what they want you to buy? Well, log off and walk into a brick and mortar store. You may or may not find what you're looking for there, but at least you will escape for a while the toxicity of the social media. As for brands, businesses and retailers, they shouldn't give up on their real relationship with consumers and shouldn't treat them like machines, after all people's love for Instagram may transform as quickly as a mutating algorithm.