Are overnight oats ads proof that Instagram is changing reality?

Um. Yes.

Are overnight oats ads proof that Instagram is changing reality?
Photo by Benyamin Bohlouli / Unsplash

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My husband, Riley, and I have been best friends since we were twelve years old. Aging alongside him has been interesting. For the first twenty years, it felt like we were aging together. But at nearly 40, social conditioning tells me the lines on his face make him look more manly. At nearly 40, social conditioning tells me the lines on my face make me look less desirable. It feels like we're parting ways somehow.

Yesterday, we left for our first "Just the Two of Us" vacation since we had kids. We've been looking forward to it for months. Before we left, I went to the mall to try to find a bathing suit, along with some outfits that said something like, “Yeah, the sex *is* better at 39 why do you ask?” Which it is! But it’s kind of hard to find clothes that say that at 39? At least it was at the mall.

Nothing fit quite right. I’ve gained some weight over the past year. When I looked at my profile in the dressing room mirrors, I kept seeing the new slight sag of my neck skin. I decided I’d just wear the stuff I have. Which is fine. And also, necks are just there to turn our heads!

And yeah, it’s really unfair that we’re conditioned to think aging men become hotter and aging women become less hot. But I know it’s conditioning and that’s got to count for something. Plus!  I’d seen a thing on Instagram that said microneedling can help restore the collagen in your neck. So maybe I’d try that when we got home. 

Yesterday, I scrolled through Instagram as Riley and I waited to board our plane. Ads and suggested content interspersed with posts from people I follow. I used to get served ads for travel gear, videos of stationary influencers writing with high-end pencils and women twirling in the kind of clothing brands that like, I don’t know, embroider memento mori on clothing saved from landfills. (Okay, that clothing company doesn’t actually exist, but I think we can agree it should exist.)

At some point earlier this year, the algorithm started serving me content like ads for overnight oats subscriptions and influencers sharing skincare tips for women over forty. I noticed the shift, but didn’t think much of it. 

I make my own overnight oats several times a week. And I am a 39 year old woman who should probably learn to do more than splash water on my face before bed each night. Some combination of ad sales, taps on the app, my search history and Meta’s priorities decide what I see on IG. When any of those things changed a bit, I’d start seeing something else. 

Instagram says it is really good at “discovery.” The user discovers very little on Instagram. Instead, a machine learning algorithm tracks user behavior on the app and then predicts what the user wants to see next. Because the user scrolls to move their feed along, it can feel like they’ve discovered the content served to them. But scrolling is just a game mechanic that makes the user feel like they are making choices. 

I know all of this. And I know how harmful Instagram, and its parent company Meta, have been and continue to be. For many years, I pulled back from IG, using Twitter to promote my work and find work from other people. And it’s not like Twitter was better? It was just differently bad, in a way that I felt I could mitigate more effectively.

But Twitter has fallen. And TikTok, which I never really get into, is about to be banned. There’s also the issue of Google just…not working anymore? I’ve started searching for things on Instagram that I used to search for on Google. 

Related Reading
The Enshittification of TikTok
Or how platforms die

It’s not ideal! But I’d convinced myself  my understanding of the product would protect me from its influence. But while I scrolled at the airport, I was served an ad for a company that sells a subscription for single-serving ready to eat lentil meals. I swore under my breath. Riley looked up from his book, “Everything okay?’

“The algorithm is being a dick! It’s trying to push me to the next step in the sequence mapped out for women my age: Maintenance, which comes before Steady Decline. Before I turned 39 I was being served stuff that was about doing things! Or being sustainable, but make it weird! But now, the algorithm is like, ‘You should be worried about all the collagen you are losing. And also, you’re not getting enough fiber.’ But like, I don’t need to be maintained! My god! I haven’t even become yet!”

Riley’s been with me a long time. So he didn’t really think I was being weird. Or at least not weird for me. He put his hand on my thigh and said, “I’m sorry the algorithm is being a dick.” And then he turned back to his book. He left his hand on my thigh, which I appreciated. 

I stared at my feed. The other day, I was served a tutorial on forehead taping, performed by an influencer who’d obviously used botox. It was ridiculous. But it didn’t make me swear. Why did I have such a different reaction to the lentil subscription? I mean, I’ve seen sillier subscriptions. And I really love making lentils! And I don’t know maybe that was it? 

If the algorithm was really learning from my searches and taps, it would know I love making lentils. And I spend a weird amount of time on the internet understanding how to make them. “Best lentil recipes for fall nights” “How long should I soak beluga?” “Should I crush or mince garlic for lentil soup” “Oil temp for crushed garlic” “Substitutes for du Puy lentils.” “Making dal. Should I bloom spices after toasting them?” 

If the algorithm was really using machine learning to send me content, it would have sent me a video of someone making lentils. Or just like a generic ad for cookware! But it’s not really learning my interests and iterating until it serves me things I want or need or would like. It’s just taking key words “lentils” and plugging them into a predetermined sequence leading to a predetermined end. 

I am a middle class white woman who is about to turn forty. The algorithms’ inputs predict a woman like me will want to track calories. Lentils are just 200 calories a serving! Women like me will be concerned about getting protein so they can stay full longer and eat less. Lentils are high in protein! They will be concerned about aging. Blue zones are known for lentil-forward diets! They have the income to spend $38 + shipping on a pound of lentils split between eight microwaveable cups. You pay a premium to not crush the garlic and bloom the spices!

But like….all I want to do is crush garlic and bloom spices. 

Okay, so the algorithm is a dick who can’t even machine learn. So what? Can’t I keep using Instagram to promote my work, support the work of the creators I follow, and just like roll my eyes at the other stuff the algorithm feeds me? And yes! That’s what I’ve been doing. But sitting in the airport, I realized I become a part of the system the moment I engage with it. 

Before I roll my eyes at the face taping and lentil subscribing, I see it. I think about it, even if I don’t realize I do, before scrolling it away. I measure it in my mind: Do I need to tape my face? Should I only be eating 200 calories at lunch? Do I need to microneedle my neck?

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a concept in quantum mechanics. It tells us that what we measure determines what we observe. And what we observe determines the nature of reality. 

So let’s say you’re standing on top of a cliff looking down at a road curving along the coast. A car approaches. You can either measure the momentum of the car, or the position of the car. It’s impossible to measure and observe both at once. 

Let’s say you choose speed. You pull out your little radar device and point it at the car. Its signal bounces off the car and back to the radar device. That measurement could not exist without you. So you, the observer, have become part of the system you’re observing. Not only have you become a part of it, you’ve fundamentally changed it by choosing how the system is measured! Because measurement determines what we see and what see determines what there is! 

Okay! But with Instagram, it’s all kind of weird, right? Because the platform was built to have different physics than the real world.  Users aren’t choosing what we measure and observe. An algorithm is. But I was not built by engineers and so I am still subject to the physics of the real world. When I observe things on Instagram, I become part of the system. I can’t keep myself out of it. Even when I know how it works. 

This was troubling.

Riley, who had no idea how bonkers the inside of my head was as we waited to board.

We’d boarded the plane and almost gotten to our seats before I realized everything was going to be okay. Perhaps it was exactly the difference in the physics that could insulate me.

I’d be even more aware from now on! I’d remember that machine learning has been defined by the people who want me to believe it works the way they say it does. But an algorithm can’t really observe anything. So it can’t really measure my behavior, and so it can’t really discover anything for me, or about me! And I’d stopped feeding the machine! Change my feed to follows only! Don’t search on Instagram at all! 

And you know what…fuck it! I’d complete disrupt every other mechanism trying to convince me that becoming a 40 year old woman is the end of becoming. I’ll embrace my wrinkles! And my slightly less taut neck! And now that I think about it, gaining 15 pounds this year actually made my tits look great? I mean…is it possible I am hotter than I have ever been, but I didn’t notice because I was measuring the wrong thing? Should I buy a slip dress?!

As Riley and I got closer to our seat, I saw the woman sitting in the window seat in our row was very pretty. Like, wildly pretty. And specifically - she was Instragram pretty. You know? That like kind of filled cheeks, lip flip, extensions in her hair kind of pretty? Which is not a bad thing! It’s just like…a thing I've observed. And before my great plane boarding realization, I might have felt kind of panicked about Riley sitting between us. It's not like he would have been weird or mean about it? But I’d have just felt…like a before photo? You know what I mean? 

But I marveled at how much machine unlearning I'd already done. Because it was okay! There’s lots of ways to be a woman. Lots of ways to be desirable. Lots of ways to be without being desirable or desired! It is all up to me, and what I measure! I can make the choices that create my reality! We are all so beautiful!

About twenty minutes into the flight, we hit a little bit of turbulence. The plane dipped and jagged. I grabbed Riley’s hand and he squeezed back. And then…the very pretty woman in the seat started crying, but like very prettily? And turned to him for comfort, very prettily? And was just like softly gasping about how very scary it was, very prettily? While touching his shoulder, very prettily? And then kind of thanked him breathlessly several times, very prettily?

And he was just very cool and normal about it! And he treated her the way he’d treat anyone who seemed to be in distress. 

And I was like, okay! That is great! It is so great that women realize he is a safe person! And that’s a totally normal thing that just happened. We are here to comfort each other! And it would be fine if it happened with any kind of person, this person just happened to be a very pretty woman! And like her prettiness doesn't change me! I am not more or less anything because she is very pretty! I am so glad I figured everything out! 

They turned the wifi on shortly after the turbulent event. I pulled out my phone and checked my emails. Sent the kids a couple text messages. Then I opened up Instagram, paused for just a moment and then searched, “Is 40 too young for neck lift?”

I might have some more machine unlearning to do.

PS. The comments are working again, Fellow Obervers!

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