Using the Evolution of the Instagram User Interface as a Case Study into the Ethical Implications of Infinite Scroll Interface Design

McGuire, Hunter, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn

For my thesis portfolio, I chose to write about entirely separate subjects. For the capstone technical report, I chose to write about my experience working a remote, asynchronous job doing AI code training. I was interested in concretely reflecting on the position as it was an incredibly unique experience, with both a very difficult—almost nonexistent–work culture and complex long-term moral implications. For my STS research paper, I chose to write about the ethical implications of Infinite Scroll Interfaces. This interested me because I have struggled a lot with technology addiction and screen time in recent years, especially since the emergence of Tik Tok and widespread Infinite Scrolling applications. Researching and understanding the applications from a design perspective ultimately helped me a lot with my own social media use.
In my technical report, I described the unique experience of working for the worker-facing subsidiary of a larger corporation, specifically designed to treat its work force as a fungible, renewable, and ultimately expendable resource. While frustrating given the impersonal nature of the job, the experience also allowed me technical practice in lots of hard skills such as Javascript, C++, SQL, etc. Additionally, the experience offered me the opportunity to become much more confident navigating uncertain work environments. Lastly, it was also a difficult job to wrestle with ethically, given that I was helping improve coding LLMs that have the potential to replace my future jobs.
In my STS research paper, I showed how the evolution of Instagram, both from a front-end and back-end design perspective, is emblematic of the disregard for consumer-ethics present in the current social media attention-economy. I argued that Infinite Scroll interfaces have an unparalleled ability to enrapture users into continued use, and how this negatively impacts user well-being. I then described the ethical facets to Infinite Scroll, specifically within the context of treating it as “Engineering as Social Experimentation”. Especially, I highlighted that subject-monitoring, a virtue of ethical engineering that is normally beneficial, in IS media like Instagram is instead used maliciously to increase user-use, target susceptible demographics for advertisements, and generally oppose the other virtues of ethical engineering as social experimentation.
Altogether, through writing both essays I learned how cultural, technical and organizational elements all interact together to create a holistic understanding of ethical impact. In my technical report and predating work experience, I was incredibly disappointed with how the lack of company culture and siloed organization led to difficult and ambiguous situations in my technical work. In my research paper, I was disgruntled to discover how the technical implementations of Infinite Scroll interfaces produce negative user-experience and culture. In both essays, considering the STS perspectives of the subject matter helped illuminate ethical concerns that, when looked at surface-level, had been previously easy to miss.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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