Instagram: Then and Now
Instagram 7.3 was recently launched and the photo-sharing platform is now approaching its fifth birthday. How has it changed in that time? Of course, it now has a lot more features and is a more sophisticated app. But what was Instagram like back then and what’s its purpose now?
When I joined in March 2011, Instagram was a quirky new place to explore an exciting new phenomenon: taking, processing and sharing photos on iPhones. Part of the reason for the platform’s existence was “because iPhone photos suck.” Many early users simply used the platform as a visual microblog, documenting their day-to-day lives in photos. Insofar as Instagram had a stated purpose for the platform itself, this was it.
Sometime in late 2011 Instagram dropped the reference to the iPhone in its strapline, not only because it was developing apps for other mobile devices but also because people had started posting pictures taken on all sorts of cameras, not just mobiles. Around the same time, as Instagram’s user numbers started skyrocketing, a question on the lips of many people was: how will Instagram make money? Most people thought Instagram would introduce ads in some form or other. Not many people correctly anticipated the commercial experience we have on Instagram today.
In the early days of Instagram, the talk was all about its range of retro filters. Users loved the filters because they would transform a boring iPhone photo into something with a “look.” Although Instagram never intended it, the platform became the home to a new photographic genre: iphoneography. This genre had a specific look (due to the hardware used and the apps used to edit the photos) and it had particular subjects: candid street, the mundane day-to-day, and experimental. Today, people are all filtered out. Users are more sophisticated and if they want to edit a photo they will use the manual editing tools now included in the Instagram app. In any case, improved mobile cameras today mean the original photos are usually fairly good so don’t need to be processed too much. And while in 2011 transferring a photo from a DSLR to Instagram was quite complicated, today it’s easy. And so Instagram carries as many non-mobile photos as it does mobile ones, and there’s little distinction between the two categories.
But of course, we now know that Instagram’s strength was not its filters, but its sharing capabilities and the accompanying follower and likes system. By shrinking photos to a tiny size, Instagram enabled users to upload, or share, their photos to the platform for others to see and approve. This sociability was the real driving force behind the app’s popularity. Not only could users experiment with new filters and editing tools, they could show off their skills, learn from others by sharing and feel good about it thanks to likes and follows. In its early years, Instagram created a system of power users by promoting specific users through its suggested user list and its popular page. This system, together with Instagram’s growing user base, brought the platform to the attention of brands and businesses. It offered a way for brands to push adverts to millions of people in a fresh personalised way. And so these days, users with a “K” (i.e. more than 10,000 followers) use their feeds primarily to promote third party brands. Instagram does sell promoted posts to large brands, but these ads are few and far between (at least at the moment). Instagram’s primary commercial function is its link to its owner, Facebook. And this – in answer to that early question – was how Instagram made money (it sold itself to Facebook).
While power users promote brands for others, many Instagram users use the platform (myself included) to promote themselves and their businesses. The smallest business, freelance or corner shop, now has an Instagram feed pushing soft marketing to their customers or audience. So while Instagram started life as a place for people to experiment with mobile photography or document their day-to-day lives, it is now mainly a place where people advertise.
Today Instagram is very much a part of the commercial mainstream, as a central part of any digital marketing team’s toolkit. Instagram continues to allow users to post only square photos (although there are workarounds) and it also allows (officially at least) uploads only via mobile devices. These two restrictions are perhaps due to a desire to hold onto its roots or perhaps to a belief that they are important parts of its branding. Or perhaps even to some very commercially astute planning. They now seem like quirky vestiges of a no longer very quirky place.