Instagram: A focus on the visual

Instagram: A focus on the visual
Instagram has changed the world in a social, political and economic sense. The platform transformed the written-based internet into a space of visual communication. The immense transition of focus to the visual capitalized on superficial societal values and convenience to generate user engagement within the technology driven climate. The platform has fostered connection through images to create new opportunities for both individuals and businesses. However, Instagram’s business model has had a profound impact on how we receive and distribute information. Socially, the platform has increased the importance of aesthetic value and thus made society as a whole question standards of living, beauty and attitudes. Further, the social media site has become a political weapon and tool for social change. Most significantly, economically, Instagram has had a profound effect on how society conducts commerce, completely reinventing traditional marketing.

Scrolling Instagram by Artist Terrell Davis
Scrolling Instagram by Artist Terrell Davis

What is Instagram?
Instagram is a social media platform for visual sharing through a mobile application. Many describe Instragram to be a “visual diary” where users can share and document their lives and businesses can establish their brand. Users can publish photos and videos, where others users can interact through likes, comments and following. Instagram has added multiple features in recent years, including stories, IGTV, Reels and shopping. 


History and development
Instagram was born to founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Kriegerin in 2010. The application first began under the name ‘Burbn’ which focussed on the sharing of whiskeys and included a photo-sharing feature. The concept did not appeal to a wide audience, which resulted in the creators stripping back to basics and focusing on a general photo-sharing social media platform. 

The symbolic polaroid camera, square layout and professional-like filters formed the iconic Instagram application. With the ability to follow accounts, like and comment on photos, Instagram’s success was almost instantaneous, accumulating over 100,000 users in the first week of operation. It quickly became the most popular photography app and sold to Facebook just two years later for 1 billion dollars. 

Instagram began with the capabilities to share photos and videos with captions, locations and hashtags. Instagram has taken concepts from competitors to create a platform which is inclusive of many media forms to cater for all users. The application developed to include Instagram Stories, which was derived from competitor Snapchat. Further included IGTV which is similar to YouTube and lastly recently released reels to compete with its new competitor TikTok. The platform has transitioned again to become a source of online commerce. Instagram launched a new Shopping tab, which allows users to browse brands and purchase from the application. 


Who owns it and what is its business model?
Instagram generates money through visual advertising and selling of data to third parties. Under the Facebook conglomerate, the company generates revenues for Facebook Inc. and after the acquisition of  Instagram, their overall business strategy was implemented. This saw the integration of an advertisement based business model, where businesses can purchase paid posts and stories to appear amongst user generated content, targeting specific consumer demographics (Simon, 2020)


Social Ecology

Social Ecology Of Instagram
Social Ecology Of Instagram

Instagram is the core of modern social interaction online. Forbes ranks Instagram the third most popular social networking site, after Facebook and Youtube on the basis of the number of users. Although these platforms have more users, Instagram has developed a type of reach which cannot be ignored. According to Sprout Social, the service is the second most downloaded free app worldwide and has seen exponential growth, with a 20% increase from June to April of 2019. 

Instagram rests under the Facebook conglomerate operating in alliance with the Facebook platform. Further, Instagram has now become a crucial element in many businesses’ social media strategy and thus introduced an Instagram Partner Program, to assist with driving business on Instagram. There are more than 50 partners, which help clients set up adverts, manage accounts in multiple facets – Citizen Net is an example of this. 

Other prevalent social media platforms are Instagram’s direct competitors. These include FaceBook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok, which all permit photo sharing with a focus on online connectivity through images. 

Users are Instrgram’s driving factor  in the form of personal, influencers and business accounts. Instagram appeals to a younger generation, with 64% of users falling into the 18 to 29 year old age category. Instagram is so prevalent in the age category that according to data from Sprout Social, nearly two out of three people within the age demographic use the service. 

Like most social media platforms, Instagram is self-regulated and sets its own terms of usage. However, government agencies hold the power to intervene if Instagram does not regulate content up to standards. For example, Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act in 2019 which enforces penalties for social media companies if they do not comply (Faust, 2017)

The Instagram application is supplied to users through various app stores. The two most popular are the App Store for IOS users and Google Play for Android users. 


Social Impact
Instagram has become a way in which we now view the world as society has integrated the application into their daily lives (Siebel, 2019). Users visually communicate their lives to both family, friends and the wider community. With a focus on aesthetic quality, the platform has transformed how we experience the simplicities of life, from a meal to travel. Ultimately, real life never looked so perfect. The ability to project a highly curated depiction has generated a culture of comparison. Instant gratification and reassurance has been amplified through social media features, such as followers counts, likes, comments and views. The application has perpetuated an unrealistic body and beauty standard which has been set by influencers, through the ability to alter physical appearance through filters and editing applications. This social pressure has been associated with anxiety, depression and bullying, along with having an impact on one’s perception of self. 

Tana Mongeau after and before photoshop.
Tana Mongeau after and before photoshop.

Further, Instagram upended the “experience economy.” The platform has commercially influenced an entirely new way individuals share and experience occasions, particularly around life milestones. The culture of sharing Instagram has fostered has turned users into performative versions of themselves, their surroundings and their experiences. Distribution of picturesque restaurants and travel locations have placed importance on surface level appearances and become a new way for society to view society. 


Political Impact
Instagram has become a source of political activism. Social media platforms have transformed political campaigns and built on the political image of many (Heaney, 2020). Political leaders such as Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau have become online personalities.

Trump's Instagram Account
Trump’s Instagram Account

Further, the redistribution of social media has been linked to the increased number of political protests. The platform and other social media sites have transformed participation in activism through the simplified participatory process of protests. Instagram was a focal point of the racial justice movement of 2020, Black Lives Matter. #BlackoutTuesday flooded the platform with black squares and #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Further, Instagram has become the source for many resources and links to donations regarding political moments. For example, earlier this year a popular nomination trend began on Instagram Stories, where friends could call for particular individuals to donate to causes. However, many social justice movements implemented through Instagram have received criticism for not achieving changed past awareness (Couldry, 2014).



Instagram using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter
Instagram using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter



Economic Impact
Instagram has been the most transformative source in reshaping how commerce is conducted online. The platform has generated new forms of consumer marketing, concentrated on user generated content.

Instagram is responsible for the professionalism of the influencer industry. In 2011, bloggers noticeably began to switch their primary platform to Instagram. Influencers predated the introduction of Instagram’s Paid Partner Feature, which lauded in 2017. The platform has transformed traditional marketing campaigns and are a necessary consideration for any modern day marketing strategy. Users sell advertisement space through captions and sponsored products, turning the social media site into an overflowing marketplace (Biaudet, & Sofie, 2017). The transition from text-based influencing of the blogging era to the ease of visual communication on Instagram, facilitated the rise in aspiring influencers. Thus, Instagram lowered the expectations of an influencer and made it much easier to transform oneself into an online brand.

Influencer and celebrity Kylie Jenner promoting products through Instagram
Influencer and celebrity Kylie Jenner promoting products through Instagram

The culture of social media addiction has been generated by the platforms themselves. Nothing comes free and social media is a direct example of this. When something online does not require a consumer to make a purchase, it is said “you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Although the Instagram platform is seemingly “free,” users provide payment through their data as part of the realm of surveillance capitalism (John, 2018). Instagram monitors users’ behavioural surplus for their own personal gain, which has created an attachment to many users’ lives. 

Also, Instagram has changed the nature of which products people purchase and where they shop. The viral nature of social media raised the appeal for items which were shareable, a further emphasis placed on aesthetic value and consumer engagement. Certain industries have flourished at the hands of Instagram. The beauty business for example has had exponential growth within the last few years, as products appeal to consumers through visual tutorials and eye catching results.

Beauty Products Hyped by Instagram
Beauty Products Hyped by Instagram

It is evident that Instagram has been a source in transforming the ways in which the modern world communicates. The emphasis on virtual imagery has placed a significant value on aesthetics and fosters an environment of exterior gratification in a social, political and economic manner. As Instagram only offers a look into the surface, it is important users seek beyond the physical and consider the process behind the platform itself. Instagram, along with its competitors, have generated a world where something is always being sold, whether these are products, data, images or ourselves. 


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