The Data behind ‘Instagram is the New Porn’

Instagram is the New Porn is a story in which I analyze the growing sexualization of the social media app’s content and the impact that this trend has on users.

To evaluate the mechanisms that drove Instagram’s content evolution throughout the years, I drew on my personal experience and the examples set by some of the platform’s most popular users (Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, in this case). But I also used a little personal experiment aimed at demonstrating what I saw as the main truth behind the whole process: that sex sells.

As the original story explains…

The experiment is very simple. I analyzed a series of Instagram posts, ranking them based on how much of the person is revealed in the image, then making a note of how many likes it has. The idea is to study the correlation between how sexualized a post is and how popular it gets on the app.

Here, I will dissect the setup for the experiment and share the complete data set that’s behind the charts displayed in the story.

Because Instagram’s wide variety of content poses a challenge to a generalized analysis, I decided to focus on specific categories. This arrangement also allowed me to study the different ways in which each type of account adheres to the hypothesis that sexualized posts do better on the app.

A total of six categories were analyzed:

  • Celebrities
  • Fashion
  • Fitness
  • Travel
  • Food
  • Regular user

The last one — regular users — were just friends of mine that use the app as a standard social media platform, with no particular theme to their posts and a low number of followers. For the curious, this subset included my own Instagram profile. In two cases there was overlap: I considered Dwayne Johnson’s account to be both of a celebrity and fitness type, and Kylie Jenner’s to be celebrity and fashion.

To analyze how sexualized each specific post was, I defined a scale from 1 to 8, where each value can be roughly described as follows based on the post’s content:

  • 1 - no people
  • 2 - a hardly visible person or group of people
  • 3 - a neutral group of people
  • 4 - a neutral person
  • 5 - a selfie or a close-up portrait
  • 6 - a suggestive group of people
  • 7 - a suggestive, fully dressed person
  • 8 - a suggestive, lightly dressed person

I considered a close-up to be more “sexualized” than a full or medium shot, and a single person more than a group of people — all of which could be argued. Obviously, the scale is inherently subjective, as there is no scientific way to measure how neutral or suggestive a picture is. I generally used common sense and, for the most part, posts fell clearly into one of the defined levels of sexualization.

In order to prevent the spacing out of posts in time from skewing the numbers (a newer image could have more likes than an older one only because the account increased in followers in between the two posts), I kept the selected pictures for each account in a time range as short as possible. On top of that, the experiment only makes sense if there are pictures of different sexualization levels within that range. Finally, to keep the comparisons between posts fair, I avoided videos and posts with multiple and varied images.

All these requirements meant that I had to browse accounts searching for a specific period where the user made several single-picture posts of a different kind in a short time range. Such criteria were in some cases challenging to meet and prevented me from using some accounts in the study. However, I was finally able to find enough good examples to build a decent data set.

I ended up selecting 5 profiles per category, for a total of 28 profiles (because it includes two multi-category accounts), and 5 posts for each profile, for a total of 140 posts. To conclude this story, you can see below the complete list of posts by profile and category, along with the number of likes for each, their date, and the exposure level assigned. I included links to each post, with the exception of the regular user accounts, which I’m sure would prefer to keep their anonymity.

For the full context around this experiment and the complete commentary on Instagram, I encourage you to read the original story, if you haven’t already.

Porn addict. Working on myself to overcome my addiction and find happiness.

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