Who do your apps think you are?

In these days of social media, our apps and social networking sites are getting better and better at understanding who you are and what you want. Aka, what they can sell you. So many of these have built an identity for you. Let’s figure out how they built it and how they use it.


Facebook takes into account many factors to decide what you see: who’s posts show up in your timeline, what pages are suggested that you might like, and ads for products. Not only do they use the information you give them, like your age, gender, geographic area, education level, etc. to do this, but also take it to the next level with your location, pages you like, people you interact with, your propensity to click on certain other ads, the type of phone you use, and where you shop elsewhere online, all combining to determine your interests. Interestingly, you can see what Facebook thinks you’re interested in based on these things. Let’s check mine out —

Suggested Interests:

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Here is hit or miss. While many of the suggested pages included Boston College charities, clubs, and events were relevant to me and made sense because of my friends, some pages didn’t. Female drummers newsletter could not be less me – and I don’t even have any friends that like it. Additionally, this male author that writes about finance wouldn’t be my go to type of book. Beyond these, let’s just say there were some really weird suggestions by Facebook.


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Facebook does a good job with targeted advertising, as we talk about with cookies: one day you’ll be looking at a pair of shoes online and the next day they’re advertised on your newsfeed. When you see an ad, you can click on the drop down arrow in the top right corner and click “why am I seeing this ad” and it will explain. Here is the explanation for an Aveeno ad – which makes sense. Good job Facebook.

Instagram Ads & Discover Page

During the olympics, I regularly looked at the #FinalFive gymnast’s instagrams to see their placing, times, and just see their glamorous time at the event. After that, I could not get gymnastics videos, photos, and celebrity gymnasts out of my discover feed for months. Instagram is one place that is always changing and updating its recommendations of who to follow, ads, and discover page. As time goes on, I can tell they have gotten better, and maybe this is because they have gotten some information from Facebook. Usually if I stalk someone on Facebook, they’re recommended as someone to follow the next day on Instagram (and sometimes random people are suggested – does that mean they stalked me? Hmm).

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Coming from a probably similar background as Facebook, Instagram takes into account what we like and who we follow to form our interests. Now I understand why it’s worth being one of the million likes on some celebrity’s photo or an internet meme: It will curate that content for you.  Again on this platform, I see some hits and some misses on what is suggested for me.



Wedding inspiration – considering I am no where near getting married, this is definitely a different target audience than me. However below this is friends of friends posts, memes, and celebrity pictures I might be interested in. Breadmaking – as a fan of Tastey videos, I get this, but still not hitting me perfectly on the mark. Ragdoll cats – honestly, I don’t even follow that many pet accounts, and if I did, I’m not sure ragdoll cats would be my animal of choice. Instagram can step it up as to what I’m liking and why.


I remember Professor Kane saying Google thinks he is a middle aged woman, so I wanted to learn who Google thinks I am. Unfortunately, my guess isn’t as funny, as it knew I was a female ages 18-24 = spot on!


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Additionally, my interests here are pretty straightforward based on my search history as well as probably the content of emails I get from businesses etc. Finance, Jazz, and Dance & Electronic music confuse me a little – but I must have had some recent question to google on those topics.

Spotify, LinkedIn & Beyond

Spotify: Spotify builds personalized playlists for users based off of what they listen to, what their friends listen to, who they follow & any data they can get from Facebook (if you sign in with Facebook). Again, it gets better every time you use it, as you are teaching the AI what you like and what you dislike. As someone who loves discover weekly, it’s hard when my friends use my phone to play music in the room because it changes Spotify’s image of what I like, and probably sways my music tastes to be more for a party than for studying.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.12.12 PM.pngLinkedIn: Sometimes the job postings I get from LinkedIn can be comical. As someone who keeps up to date with my profile, and have told LinkedIn in the past specifically what I was looking for in a job, this platform is definitely lacking in whatever intelligence it is using. I’ve been sent job postings for banks that say “they are looking for candidates like you!” and it ends up being a Vice President or something way too high up the ranks for me. In general, LinkedIn, step it up. This could be really useful for people and right now it’s just annoying.



In conclusion, these apps and sites are creating who they think you are and doing their best to tailor content to you. I think it will be nice to have ads I actually want and find interesting, as well as content like songs or groups of people that I may not have found otherwise. As we continue to use these sites, we need to teach them what we like and who we are to get more interesting and relevant information!






  1. Awesome post! I never realized you could track why Facebook and Instagram are sending you specific ads–that’s a super cool feature. One interesting thing I noticed in checking my google profile is that my profile characteristics & “topics I like/dislike” change a lot depending on which google account I’m checking for. I have my own personal google account that I’ve been using since middle school, as well as the BC account & my results were pretty drastically different. The BC profile won’t guess on gender/age (my personal account was spot on), but the topics vary a lot. I find these features really interesting & even pretty fun to search through, but I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that these sites are selling my information to larger companies. I don’t really mind the targeted ads, but I definitely don’t want my email or phone number in a company database.

  2. Really informative post! I am definitely going to pay attention now to why Facebook says they are showing me particular ads, because like you experienced, I oftentimes see ads and suggestions that have little to nothing to do with my actual interests. You also make a good point when you stated that the technology requires us to also teach them what we like — for instance, I have not been in the habit of regularly updating my LinkedIn, and that is probably why my LinkedIn job suggestions always seem off.

  3. Great post! Although a lot of the ads on social media have nothing to do with my interests or likes, the few ads that are relevant make up for it. There are so many new products and brands that I now use because of targeted ads on social media, and I would have never discovered them had it not been for the targeting algorithms. I anticipate that as AI technology improves and more complex algorithms are created, there may come a day where every ad we see on social media and the internet is extremely relevant to our needs and interests.

  4. Showing screenshots from your own experience was a great way to help us understand this more. I actually went onto all my platforms to copy what you did and see who my apps think I am, and some of them were spot on, some were a little off.

    Instagram’s explore place is a wild page. This week I actually wrote a blog where I mention how Instagram thinks I’m a vegan! https://isys6621.com/2017/04/06/food-trends-social-media/

    I love that you mention how you try to help Spotify to curate the best Discover Weekly playlist for you. You’re really embracing the AI, and it works for you! I’m curious how long it’ll take for the general population to realize they can use AI to their benefit, rather than be creeped out by it. I’ve lately been digging the Your Daily Mix on Spotify–because I listen to such a wide variety of music, I love that Spotify has gotten to know my tastes and sorted it out into rap, indie, pop, and intense classical for studying.

    It’s funny that you bring up LinkedIn, as their recommendations for me have always been ridiculously wrong. They are the one platform that really needs to step it up.

  5. mollyshields44 · ·

    You had great explanations and examples in this post! The screen shots were a great way to bring up a topic and simultaneously show how it is portrayed on the actual platform. I can relate to social media picking up my likes and recent searches and serving me up targeted content. Sometimes even within the same day! In regards to the shoe example you mentioned, I definitely have experienced that. It really influences my purchasing decisions as I often click for a second time to consider buying a pair (unfortunately they were still too expensive the second time I clicked). I am also a Tasty video addict and I just checked my Instagram suggested accounts to follow in the Browse section. I had a recommended video from @thenaughtyfork. I would definitely recommend you check out the account (but only after you’ve eaten!). You did a great job of highlighting how all of the platforms try to personalize our experience, and how they attempt to be more attractive to brands looking to advertise.

    I think shortly you will be able to do a follow up to this post with information regarding Snapchat’s understanding of its user. Check out this article that talks a little bit about Snap’s targeted ads.

  6. Nice post. I had a strange situation in which FB recommended the teenage daughter of a friend of mine in ATL as a friend, despite the fact that we had no mutual friends. FB must have been doing some interesting two-degrees-of-separation calculations to figure out that recommendation.

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