There Is No Cat

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Monday, May 8, 2023

Things I Learned Making a Site to Archive My Instagram Posts

Instagram offers users the ability to download a ZIP file that contains a lot of information about your account. It has all your posts. It has all the comments you’ve made. It has a record of every post you’ve liked. It has a record of every thing you’ve bought, every ad you clicked on, what they’ve figured out about you because of your behavior on the app. It’s interesting and a little disturbing.

I started on Instagram the first hour they were open to the public. My friend Dan Rubin had been a beta tester and was linking to his posts there during the beta period in his tweets, so I knew it was coming and was looking forward to joining. I got in really early; my member number is 2529. For a long time, it was fun, but over time, it became less so, to the point where I just didn’t enjoy posting there any more. So I stopped. I work in advertising, and I’m all too aware of how we track people online and sell what we learn to advertisers. I believe this practice, surveillance capitalism, is a danger to democracy and our way of life, and I just don’t want to participate in it any more. I miss the friends I made there who haven’t moved on the way I have, but life is short and participating in things I don’t enjoy any more is a non-starter. So fuck Instagram. I post my photos on sites where I pay for the hosting, which means that I’m the customer, so the people running the service have the incentive to make me, their customer happy, instead of a the way a “free” service like Instagram has the incentive to make their customers, the advertisers, happy.

So anyway, Instagram has all this information, and they’ve been shamed into letting you have a copy of it, because after all, you created it. They don’t have to provide it in a format that’s easy for you to understand, mind you. If you open up the files in the archive, you’ll find a lot of brackets and quotation marks and stuff that wouldn’t make sense to a civilian.

Fortunately, I’m a web developer. The brackets and quotation marks and stuff is a format called JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), and it’s designed to be easy to read by a web app. So I wrote a web app.

Here’s some things I figured out about the data they provide (and maybe a few other things).

  1. They provide you with the set of everything you liked. Every post. Not the post itself, mind, you, just the fact that you liked a post with this ID. You generated it, therefore you own it. But it’s missing the context; you liked this post, but that post belongs to someone else, the person (or corporation) that created it, so it’s not in your data file.
  2. The flip side of this is that all the likes that your posts generated belong to the people who created them, so there’s no record of who liked your posts or how many likes they got. If that’s important to you, you need to access the app. I assume there’s a data table somewhere that records all the likes on a post and they’re associated through a SQL JOIN command or some equivalent (basically a way of associating data held in different places with each other), because generating the list of likes for each post by looking at every individual’s list of likes would get very costly. But those likes don’t belong to you, so you don’t get them.
  3. They provide you with every comment you’ve ever made. But (and you can see this coming), they don’t provide the context. Again, you get what you generated, and nothing anyone else generated (except for stuff like the shit they figured out about you, whether it’s right or not). Some subset of the comments you made are likely to be on your own posts, but again, without context, you lack the data to make sense of them or fully reconstruct what’s on the site.

It’s interesting. It’s like “We heard you, you want a copy of everything you’ve created on our site, and we’re going to give it to you good and hard”....

So if you want to create an archive of your Instagram posts, you have to understand that it’s not going to be a complete copy of what’s on Instagram itself.

In many ways, the chase for likes on Instagram is part of what makes it such a sick place to be, so I don’t miss them. I’m probably wouldn’t include them in my archive even if they were available. The missing context for comments is a little harder to accept, but it is what it is. The cudgel that Instagram uses to keep people coming is the community; if they give that community away, they lose their hold on you, you drift away, and now they can’t sell your eyeballs.

The archive that I created is at gram.thereisnocat.com. It has all of my pictures, with none of the comments or likes. I created it as a way to evaluate different web frameworks we were looking at for an upcoming project at my new job. So I basically wrote the thing three times, and the one I liked best is the one I published. I’ll write another post focused on that experience.

Posted at 11:05 AM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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