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Reminder: Instagram Is Not a Recommendation App

It might feel like the photo-sharing platform is a better Yelp, but beware its faulty clutches

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“Look at this queso,” my friend said, shoving her phone in my face. We had just finished watching a very long movie and were searching for a place to eat. She recalled seeing some yummy Tex-Mex on Instagram, and quickly pulled out her phone. I watched as an anonymous hand plucked a tortilla chip out of a basket and hovered it above a bowl of soft, white cheese topped with chorizo and avocado. The hand paused, offering its audience a couple of seconds to prepare for what was going to happen, then plunged the chip into the goo. It emerged coated in a thick, glistening, dairy-and-meat lacquer, dribbling small morsels of sausage into the bowl. The camera remained fixated on the drip, drip, drip of the cheese until the video started over. It was decided: Wherever this video originated was where we’d be eating dinner.

The reality did not live up to the art. We were seated beneath the freezing breeze of an air conditioner, served lime-garnished PBRs in lieu of Tecates because they were “out,” and forced to wait two and a half hours for our food to arrive. By the time we ate, the craving piqued by that sensual queso snuff film had been overtaken by an animal hunger. The food was admittedly delicious, but we consumed it swiftly and joylessly, then trudged home. There was no denying it: We’d been pulled into this restaurant’s Instagram thirst trap and played for fools.

Not to be confused with the more gimmicky Instagram food trend, the culinary thirst trap is a ’gram-to-table phenomenon meant to entice hungry scrollers. These photogenic dishes are used as digital bait, and traffic best when they ooze, glow, sweat, or bubble. They’re aimed mostly at those with empty stomachs, a target market that tends to make rash decisions. All it takes to catch hungry people in your web is to offer a glimpse of a well-styled pizza or a matcha latte with some sick foam styling. The right angle and lighting can send one on a long, unnecessary quest to relive a moment that may only exist in a square box on their smartphones. Maybe the result is a two-hour line for an overpriced, salty pie. Maybe it just means wasting 30 minutes in travel time to get a drink that’s served at your local Le Pain Quotidien. Either way, the hungry lose.

By now we’ve all felt the consumerist reverberations of Instagram on our lives. Besides the paid advertising that the platform tucks into all 600 million of its monthly active users’ feeds, there are layers and layers of witchy commercial tactics at work when you scroll through the app. Brands and small businesses maintain their own dreamy accounts in hopes they can lure you to their sites, resorts, or restaurants. And there’s also the natural promotional effect of seeing something cool in the feed of a celebrity, friend, or hot stranger. Suddenly a photo of your elaborate tiki drink isn’t just a life update, but a suggestion to your followers to enjoy the very same beverage at the very same location. Your chic outfit isn’t just proof of your good taste, it’s a contribution to your subscribers’ digital fashion mood boards. After posting a few shots of a beach sunset during my vacation in Oaxaca earlier this month, I got an Instagram direct message from a friend: “What. Where? Want!” In three simple words, she’d summarized Instagram’s ascent as an unlikely but incredibly effective recommendation app.

Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an expert on social influence, agrees that Instagram now carries similar weight to sites like Yelp and Travelocity.

“It’s a way to express who we are, on the one hand, and engage with friends,” he said. “But they’re also part of our brand life. They’re an important channel for marketers to try to influence us and try to shape our behavior.”

As Berger points out, the organic recommendations that Instagram specializes in are 10 times more effective than traditional advertising. Thanks to the premise of the app as a place to follow friends and celebrities, you barely realize you’re engaging in capitalism at all. Instead, it’s more like a circuitous scavenger hunt. You stumble upon a carefully edited photo of something that looks new and fun, and because it’s only a photo you want to know more. Maybe you Google the clothing label that’s @-mentioned in the caption. Or perhaps you’re brave enough to click the infamous “link in bio.” Or you tap on the location tab to see other photos in the same spot, as we did on our queso hunt. No matter how you get there, it feels like you’re arriving at the point of sale by your own volition. And by then, maybe you’re just a little more committed to getting something tangible from that journey.

“Word of mouth has been around for thousands of years, but the way it exists today has certainly changed,” Berger said. “Now, not only are we talking to our friends face-to-face, we’re viewing what they purchased online. We know that if our friends talk about something, or our friend went somewhere, they’re not as biased as an ad might be. Ads always say your vacation destination is beautiful, you’ll have a great time, whereas friends will tell it to you straight. We can trust that information a lot more.”

But when a friend’s recommendation is filtered through an app like Instagram, it’s also stripped of valuable context. Because, as Berger notes, most social media is meant to display positive parts of a person’s life, there’s less of an opportunity for frank conversations about what was good or bad about a product. Not to mention, a photo-based network that places little importance on text doesn’t allow the kind of in-depth (and, OK, sometimes inane) feedback you could get from an Amazon product rating.

“The depth of information there is not as much as might exist in a text-based review,” Berger said. “So there is some concern that consumers are just looking at these pictures and saying, ‘Oh it’s beautiful,’ and they’re not getting a rounder sense of what that experience is like.”

A rounder sense of an experience means knowing that the gorgeous beaches in Tulum that appear in your old college roommate’s feed may actually be covered in a smelly seaweed called sargassum. Or, as quaint as your sister-in-law’s sweater appears, it’s made of extremely itchy fabric. Or, in my case, that even if a restaurant serves melty, wonderful queso, it may take two hours for it to appear on the table before you.