Instagram initially emerged as a photography app to “capture milestones and moments” (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 38). However, its ever-increasing prevalence in society has seen it develop into a vastly influential social media platform that has altered the way individuals and brands communicate. Instagram has created a “hyper-visual social media world” (Purtill, 2020) that has “become so popular it would shape the world around us”.
This essay provides a critical analysis on Instagram’s place in history and in the broader ecology of visual social media. Social and economic transformations of Instagram explored include the new, visual form of communication that it fosters; changes to the design of physical social spaces so they are deemed ‘instaworthy’; the commodification of digital spaces through advertising; and the rise of the influencer phenomenon.
What is Instagram and how did it come to be?
Instagram is a free photo sharing smartphone app that facilitates user generated content (Abidin, 2014, p. 120). Media uploaded by users can be edited on Instagram with filters and organised with hashtags and geographical tagging.
Instagram originated as a mobile check in app called ‘Burbn’ (Garber, 2014). After realising that Burbn was similar to location based ‘Foresquare’, co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger refocused the app on photo sharing and named it Instagram. The name combines two old methods of communication: the “instant” camera and the “telegram” (Landsverk, 2014).
Instagram was made available on the Apple app store on October 6, 2010, as an iPhone app that allowed instant photography (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 29). The first photo to be uploaded on Instagram was posted by co-founder, Mike Krieger, on July 16, 2010 (Purtill, 2020).
Since its launch, Instagram has continued to grow, reaching one million users after just two months in operation (Landsverk, 2014). Instagram’s main appeal for users was its ability to upload photos on the run and apply filters, which on other platforms, would require the use of a secondary editing app (Purtill, 2020).
Although these changes in mobile photography are worth noting, Leaver, Highfield and Abidin (2020) argue that the communication the photography allowed was the most important feature at the root of the platform’s success (p. 17).
Additions to Instagram’s functionalities over the past ten years have included: software for a greater variety of mobile operating systems (particularly Android in 2012), new filters, photo maps, direct messaging, insta stories, boomerangs, advertising functions and ‘shop now’ links (Laestadius, 2016, p. 3). See figure 2 for a timeline of Instagram’s developments.
These advancements have seen Instagram develop from a simple photo sharing app into a vast and diverse social media platform that can be “best understood as a conduit for communication” in the increasing landscape of visual social media cultures (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 13). The platform now enjoys over 1 billion users, 80 million shared posts and 3.5 billion likes a day (Treitel, 2020, p. 1)
A ‘Facebook’ business model
In 2012, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg purchased Instagram for US $1 billion, when the app was only 18 months old and had 30 million users (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 20). At the time, Instagram had no business model and therefore no way of generating revenue. Brands were extensively engaging with individual user accounts (Carah, Shaul, 2015, p. 70), allowing users to make money through brand partnerships while the app made nothing.
Facebook Inc. has since introduced an advertising-based business model where app sponsored posts are interspersed with users posts and flicks between stories are interrupted by sponsored stories (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 80). Here, brands are able to pay for sponsored posts targeted at specific users. According to Purtill (2020):
“Instagram has now become a shopfront like amazon and eBay.”
Although Facebook’s ownership has proven successful in generating revenue for the platform, Instagram has become “a jewel in Facebook’s suite of offerings” (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 17) and assisted in the growth of Facebooks empire. Kreiger and Systrom’s resignation from Instagram and Facebook in 2018 marked a significant shift between the companies. Now, Zuckerberg singlehandedly controls Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, a global network of 2.5 billion users (Tait, 2020). The implications of this is Facebook being “the most pervasive surveillance system in the world” (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 21).
The Instagram Ecology
Instagram is a dominant player in the visual-social media ecology, evident in it being the 4th most downloaded app of the 2010’s (Shead, 2019). Due to its vast nature, Instagram is further situated amongst the broader ecologies of mobile, social, and visual apps and platforms (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 64). Below is a diagram that demonstrates the relations between the core players in Instagram’s ecology:
Instagram competes with mobile apps that provide aesthetic content capturing such as Huji cam, Kamon and 1888. Instagram further competes with social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. Whilst Facebook is Instagram’s parent company, the two still compete for the number of active users (Musonera, 2018, p.7). Moreover, Instagram competes with the wealth of visual editing options that are used to make images insta-ready such as VSCO and Canva.
Instagram’s combination of the three elements (mobile, social and visual), has provided the platform with unique competitive advantage over these apps and platforms. Direct competitors that also combine these elements include Flikr, and more recently Snapchat and Tik Tok, with snapchat ranking the 5th most downloaded app and Tik Tok ranking 7th (Shead, 2019).
In response to such competitors, Instagram has developed its own ecology over time, bringing in additional abilities and standalone apps that allow users to do more on the platform. Leaver, Highfield and Abidin (2020) call this “The Instagram Ecology” (p. 67). Examples include the introduction of Insta stories that directly mirror Snapchat’s ephemeral features, and Instagram’s latest addition of insta reels that replicate Tik Tok videos.
Instagram has adopted a user-intensive strategy (Kraus, et al, 2018), with users providing free content to be experienced by other users. The platform is thus highly dependent on these users who make up Instagram’s supply chain of user generated content. It is estimated that 90% of Instagram’s users are under the age of 35, a figure much younger than other social platforms (Laestadius, 2016).
Instagram has a dedicated partner program to assist in driving business on the platform (Instagram, 2016). The program consists of over 50 partners in advertising, marketing, community management and media buying, including CitizenNet, Kenshoo, Social Code and Resolution Media.
In terms of regulation, Instagram is responsible for platform self-governance and has a “largely unfettered power to moderate content” (Witt, Suzor, Huggins, 2019, p. 558). However, Federal and state governments have the power to intervene if any legal action is required.
With Instagram having the power to make regulatory decisions regarding the appropriateness of content, significant normative concerns have emerged over biases. Initially, Instagram’s community guidelines banned all nudity regardless of the context (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 25). However, cultural and artistic exceptions to these guidelines have been made, posing an ongoing risk of arbitrariness for women and users (Witt, Suzor, Huggins, 2019, p. 560).
Online news publications have claimed that the platform is censoring depictions of female forms in arbitrary and biased ways. Among these claims, is that Instagram moderators are less likely to remove thin and idealised depictions of women (Witt, Suzor, Huggins, 2019, p. 580).
Such biases can be explicitly observed in Australian comedian Celeste Barbers post which was removed by Instagram for violating community guidelines (Gramenz, 2020). The post was mimicking supermodel Candice Swanepoel’s post, which was not flagged by the platform. Barbers followed up with a post stating:
“Hey Instagram, sort out your body-shaming standards, guys. Its 2020. Catch up.”
View this post on Instagram
Figure 6: Celeste Barber’s controversial instagram post. Source: Instagram
How Instagram has transformed society
Instagram’s evident dominance in the visual social media ecology has seen it foster various social and economic transformations.
Online users now communicate largely with images, demonstrating how Instagram has changed social approaches through visual experiences (Serafinelli, 2018, p. 1). Instagram has made selfies, filters and square frames an inescapable part of everyday life, creating a “hyper visual social media world”, that Leaver, Highfield and Abidin (2020) call “the Instagram of everything” (p. 150).
This has instigated a social addiction of people posting their entire lives, which are consequently on display for others to see. Various issues related to insecurities and depression (Treitel, 2020, p. 2) arise here, as users are increasingly comparing themselves to others, whilst also fearing they will be missing out. In 2019, father of the late Molly Russel publicly stated that “Instagram helped kill my daughter” (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 35). This called for Instagram to do more in terms of content moderation.
Figure 7: Russel’s Father claiming that “Instagram killed my daughter”. Source: BBC News
Not only is ‘the Instagram of everything’ evident in the way individuals communicate, but it has also changed the arrangement of physical social spaces. Instagram has seen the redesigning of urban spaces like brand activations, nightlife precincts, festivals and retail environments (Carah, Shaul, 2015, p. 83) as they strive to be “instaworthy”.
Instagram’s impact on society has thus been a visual one, with the digital only form of Instagram leading to explorations of how to make this content material (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 150).
How Instagram has transformed marketing
Economic transformations resulting from the rise of Instagram can be observed in the increasing commodification of visual spaces online (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 80). With the introduction of advertising functions, Instagram has evolved into a consumer driven platform inundated with advertisements and sponsorships. According to Manovich (2017), the number of Instagram advertisements increased from 200 000 in 2016 to one million in 2017 (p. 4).
This has brought forth controversies surrounding the surveillance required to target consumers, and the issue of compensated product endorsements without consumer disclosure (Carroll, 2017, p. 2).
However, the earliest sightings of commercial activity on Instagram were not of the app, but of users who integrated sponsored messages in their posts (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 80). It is here observed that Instagram contributed to the rise of a new type of online personality: the social media influencer. Abidin (2016) defines an influencer as:
“One form of microcelebrity who accumulates a following… through textual and visual narrations of their personal, everyday lives, upon which advertorials for products and services are premised” (p. 86).
Users may site influencer accounts to locate purchasing information or to “use the influencers projected lifestyles as a referent” (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 80). Leaver, Highfield and Abidin (2020) argue that influencers demonstrate how Instagram has transformed from a platform centred around on-the-go photography, to one primed for amplifying commercial content for maximal visibility and reach (p. 80).
Upon the emergence of Instagram, co-founder Kevin Systrom stated: “we will be everywhere – on every platform, on every kind of phone and tablet and on wearables” (Waters, 2015). It seems that Instagram has done just that, with its user base expanding rapidly, causing the platform to emerge as a culture of its own (Leaver, Highfield, Abidin, 2020, p. 17). The visual emphasis of Instagram changed the way we relate socially, as well as the way brands communicate with consumers. This has not all been for the better however, with significant concerns emerging surrounding the increasing dominance of Facebook, bias in content moderation, negative mental health impacts, and increasing surveillance of commercial activities.
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