Instacart on my mind

I've been thinking about you a lot.

Art: Flower Store and Dairy Store, Childe Hassam, 1888

Since we are trying to avoid public places as much as possible, Instacart is how we get our food. As a result, it’s an underestimate to say I’ve been thinking a lot about Instacart lately.

In the early weeks of the plague, Instacart slots were insanely to get, and I’d spend minutes upon minutes clicking through all the stores available in my area, refreshing the timeslot in the right-hand corner to showing a specific time.

The golden signal:

Often, at 3 in the morning, right after putting the baby down again, I would be fantasizing about reverse-engineering this text to see if I could get to the API powering the availability. I’d think about the optimization algorithm that matches buyers to shoppers and wonder about how it worked.

Apparently, it works like this:

I also dreamed in lists. I’ve never been much of a planner food-wise and would end up having to go to the store multiple times a week because I couldn’t, as I wrote before, forget the milk.

I am at the grocery store, buying milk. I have already bought milk eleven thousand times this week. But here I am again, over my lunch break, buying milk.

A lot of women politicians and business leaders talk in vague, abstract terms about how You Can Do Anything.

The thing they don’t tell you is that when you’re off doing anything, you still have to buy the milk. Because you are a woman and more attuned to emotional labor and the Running of the Household (and also, less related to biology and the essential differences between men and women but really more because you have the car on weekdays), this an obligation you will continue to fulfill until the day you die or the robot revolution occurs (please, God ,Hal, any day now.) At least you get to put more steps on your FitBit.

Now that I can’t get whatever I want, whenever, I’ve found that I have to plan very carefully to make sure that we don’t run out of food for the week, especially since I’m cooking at least twice a day most days. I always have a piece of scrap paper nearby that I add ingredients to as soon as I see that I have less than 4 days’ availability on any given one of them. (Note-taking apps are just way too slow - I always forget by the time I get to my phone.)

Then, I have to spend time culling the list, adding it to my already-in-progress order, and figuring out when the best time to start a new order after my previous order is. In the meantime, I am constantly cooking, putting ingredients on the list, and then again checking availability.

I have, essentially, become a decision science logistics platform for my household, and the mental model in my head is no less complicated than what’s going on in that diagram.

However, in my transformation from data professional to head chef and vintner (at least, until we ran out of red wine this week) at Le Bistrot Boykis, I’ve been so busy thinking about my side of the equation that I haven’t thought about how the system works from the other side once I press the “buy” button.

As I wrote before,

All of these pieces of software affect our daily lives online, and push us to make specific decisions regarding our purchases, our business practices and, sometimes, our lives (when we Google for “signs of heart attack”, for example).

And we are not privy to any of the decisions about how these pieces of software are created and changed.

What I’m thinking about most specifically is how all of this affects the actual shoppers. Because you can write about deep learning and dynamic storefronts in a Medium blog for quite a bit, but where the rubber really hits the road - or doesn’t, in this case, is when your company cannot supply all of your workers with PPE, and won’t communicate about it.

Workers were to order the kits through an internal Instacart website. But according to Wired, workers said the website was confusing to navigate, and left them uncertain of when or if the kits would arrive. The company told Wired it had limited the daily number of orders allowed so that it would be able to verify everyone applying was a legitimate Instacart worker.

With this, and the recent essential workers strike, I have been wondering how to best get more information about what goes on, on the other side of the platform, once someone accepts my order.

For example: What can customers do to make things easier for Instacart shoppers? How much should we be tipping lately? Do delivery drivers even get those tips at all? (Based on previous reporting on DoorDash, I’m worried that they don’t at Instacart, and am wondering if cash tips are better. ) Basically anything that makes navigating this black box Silicon Valley platform built out of machine learning parts, which a fair number of people now rely on, more human.

Luckily, a few days ago, in reading a thread on r/coronavirus, I stumbled across a link to Instacart Shoppers, a subreddit where people come to complain, commiserate, and puzzle out Instacart’s policies. There is also just Instacart, and Courriers of Reddit, which focuses more broadly on all kinds of delivery services.

Here’s what I’ve reverse-engineered about the black box that is Instacart from the worker side:

What can I say? It’s all very bleak and end-of-days capitalism. I’m not sure what to personally do about it other than to tip well, have reasonably-sized orders that aren’t too hard to fill, and hope that we are soon at a point of curve flattening where it makes sense to do grocery shopping again and take the load off an already-imploding system where hundreds of thousands of people come in and out of the black box every day.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Instacart’s back-end API

  2. A dating app that ostensibly doesn’t track you

  3. Paste parties on Twitter

  4. TFW Tim Apple teaches you to use the phone

  5. Professional women and childcare during the pandemic


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.