Downtime

How Well Do Our Instagram Explore Pages Know Us?

We compared screen grabs, with deeply creepy results.

A collage of various pictures from an Instagram Explore feed, including photos of animals, celebrities, pens, and paper crafts.
Photo illustration by Slate

The Instagram Explore tab—which serves up posts from people you don’t follow that Instagram believes you might click on—is an eerie example of a highly personalized algorithm in action. (For the uninitiated, you can find it by clicking that little magnifying glass in the app’s bottom navigation bar.) In a recent Slack conversation, Slate staffers started trading notes: How well does Instagram Explore know us? How much does it really feel like a dark reflection of our compulsive inner drive for content? We decided to compare screen grabs from our own Explore pages to find out.

Rachelle Hampton, staff writer

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I’m a trash human being who watches a lot of reality television, but I have a policy that I won’t follow too many people who make me feel bad about myself, so I’m pretty sure the algorithm is capturing how many times I manually look up various Bachelor contestants to see if they’re still engaged or dating. The guy with the big arms is just a random model I forgot I started following. I also use Instagram a lot like Yelp in that I use it to find places to eat or hairstylists in New York, which explains the food and hair pics. I’m not sure why David Bowie is there but I’m not mad about it.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The Lana astrology meme because it looks hilarious.

What about least?
The doughnut pic.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
This is an extremely accurate picture of what I spend my time looking at on Instagram and it’s honestly disconcerting

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of celebrities and food.
Rachelle Hampton’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of celebrities and animals.
Lizzie O’Leary’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

Lizzie O’Leary, host of the podcast What Next: TBD

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I am obviously a sucker for the “wildlife in distress” genre. I assume some of these are algorithmic suggestions based on the sad burned koalas I have clicked on in the past.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The dog. Maybe the cookie recipe. I’m basic and wholesome.

What about least?
Probably Billie Eilish.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
I feel a little undone by the presence of so many skin care tools. Like yes, I am starting to worry about aging, thank you for noticing, internet.

Laura Bennett, editorial director

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
Why are there so many TikTok teens on here?? I’ll tell you why: because I will click on TikTok teens forever and ever until there are no more TikTok teens to click. Also, I follow some fashion-y people so perhaps that’s the provenance of those weird mesh shoes. The algorithm is correct that I am interested in Brad Pitt and also Jennifers Aniston and Lopez.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The TEENS, ugh. In part it’s that I have a baby daughter and am thus morbidly transfixed by this stuff as a window into the nightmare teen social world she will one day inhabit, even though at that point she’ll probably be posting her pelvic swivels to some other not-yet-invented platform.

What about least?
The dog. Not into animal content, I’m sorry to report.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
So much. Gruesomely much.

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of various TikTok videos.
Laura Bennett’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of celebrities.
Derreck Johnson’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

Derreck Johnson, designer

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
Some of these are definitely relevant to my interests and a few are wild cards to try to get me interested in other things.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The sneakers. I could look at sneakers all day.

What about least?
Blake Lively wearing a lavish diamond necklace is one of the wild cards. And, nah. Mark Wahlberg also recently showed up in one of these. Random Caucasian actor algorithm is strong.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
It’s pretty on point with knowing that I’m quite fond of basketball, music, and footwear. It tried to throw me a couple fashion things too, which is fair. But nothing I’d wear. At least it knows I like a nice shirt from time to time.

Christina Cauterucci, staff writer 

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
Most of the people I follow are friends, plus a few nature/travel and architecture/design accounts. That’s the majority of my suggested grid, plus a little “fashion” and a little “gay,” two of my other interests.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
Something in the middle row, with the mountains or all those beams. Where are those things?? I’d like to know.

What about least?
The shadows of three people. Not intrigued.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
In terms of reflecting the nonfriend accounts I follow, it’s pretty accurate! But my actual feed is a lot less soothing and travel-porn-y than this.

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of natural landscapes.
Christina Cauterucci’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of pens and paper crafts.
June Thomas’ Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

June Thomas, senior managing producer of Slate podcasts

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I’m not a big Instagram user, which might explain why my Discovery page is a combination of absolute accuracy—I’m interested in pens, paper crafting, and opera singers—and utter error.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
Anything that shows people doing things with paper or trying out pens.

What about least?
I have zero interest in celebrities who aren’t opera singers.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
It gets me. I want to see my colleagues’ tots, but it would be creepy if Instagram showed me photos of strangers’ children.

Ruth Graham, staff writer

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
The pope is the only celebrity account I follow, so that one makes sense. I’m guessing that many of the other people I follow have themselves been following Jen and Brad content on Instagram. The guy with the dog is Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and I follow his wife on Twitter. Does Instagram know that??

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
Young Brad.

What about least?
I’d leave Sherrod Brown and his dog behind.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
It captures my general interests pretty well (’90s celebrities, fried chicken, the heartland), but not my Instagram habits, which is unsettling.

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, other celebrities, and food.
Ruth Graham’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of celebrities and food.
Asha Saluja’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

Asha Saluja, operations manager of Slate podcasts

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I honestly don’t know and it drives me nuts! There are a bunch of images about dieting and calories. I do not ever search for stuff like this. I’m not on a diet! I am careful not to click on these tiles so the algorithm doesn’t think I like them, and yet they’ve been there for months. I’ll admit my aversion to this kind of information is hard-earned—I was definitely not immune to internet pseudoscience about my ideal weight and ways to achieve it when I was about a decade younger. In all likelihood, I’m being served these tiles because I’m a young woman who follows lots of other young women on Instagram, which feels sinister. It makes me wonder how many truly vulnerable people are being sucked into rabbit holes of calorie-counting and weird eating tricks. I do enjoy celebrity gossip but I have zero interest in the ones here, nor do I follow any of them. There are even two of the exact same frame comparing Selena Gomez and Kylie Jenner, both of whom I dislike.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The cute baby, second row right, is the ONLY frame I’d click on here.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
Zero percent! Not at all! Get me out of this hellscape! Except for the babies.

Shannon Palus, staff writer

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I’ve been using Instagram to descend down a rabbit hole when a celebrity is in the news. I go through cycles of following a lot of influencers, and then feeling sad for myself and purging them. I can see a long-ago unfollow haunting me here.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
Most is Miranda Lambert and her twentysomething husband.

What about least?
The period blood smears. I’m familiar with what period blood looks like.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
The thing I most use Instagram for is looking at pictures my friends post of their pets, weekends, etc. Or so I thought!

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of celebrities and gyms for working out.
Shannon Palus’ Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of Kobe Bryant, other celebrities, and a cat.
Danielle Hewitt’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

Danielle Hewitt, podcast producer 

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
Well, for one, I watch a LOT of makeup and hair tutorials. Partly because my hair is a beast that constantly needs taming, but also if it wants to use the algorithm to get me to buy things, it’s definitely barking up the right tree here.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The slightly obscured cookie video on the bottom left or the E.L.F. products in the middle.

What about least?
Ariana.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
This page skews heavily toward Kobe but in general this is pretty accurate. Makeup, hair, and food are my Instagram bread and butter.

Holly Allen, designer 

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
I look at houses and home decorating a lot, so that makes sense. I do follow a few former Bachelors and Bachelorettes—what?!—so that makes sense as well. Not entirely sure why Insta thinks I like cows so much. (I’m more of a horse person.) And that image of Cristiano Ronaldo?? I have no idea. We are a Lionel Messi family.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The one that says “BEFORE” on it. I need to see the after. I love a good home makeover.

What about least?
Those cows.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
Unfortunately, I feel like it knows me pretty well.

Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of animals and nice houses.
Holly Allen’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram
Screenshot of an Instagram Explore feed, featuring photos of cartoons and animals.
Daniel Schroeder’s Instagram Explore feed. Instagram

Daniel Schroeder, podcast producer 

Why do you think this Instagram Explore page shows what it shows?
My Instagram identity apparently exists in the center of a food, astrology, and gay stuff Venn diagram. I spend most nights falling asleep watching food preparations, enjoy a daily dose of lust, and believe Instagram should be predominantly an astrology meme web application.

What’s the frame you would be most likely to click on here?
The Aquarius and Capricorn image with the cat.

What about least?
The bottom-right photo of what seems to be a young Kim Kardashian, whom I find to be a snooze.

How much does this feel like it accurately captures your browsing habits?
I think it captures a solid simulation of my taste but seeing it displayed this way makes me believe my unconscious and conscious tastes need to have a conversation.