An overview of Instagram and its transformative effects

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Instagram is one of the biggest and most popular social media platforms of the past decade, to be exact it ranks 6th among the most well-known platforms worldwide (Statista, 2019). The graph below in Figure 1 gives us an insight to the platforms with the most monthly active users. As of 2018, Instagram has accumulated a billion users just placing behind YouTube and Facebook (Statista and TNW, 2019).

Figure 1: Graph showing number of monthly active users by ranking platforms from highest to lowest number of users. Source: Statista and TNW (2019). Screenshot taken from: Our World in Data (2019). Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Throughout the years Instagram has developed into a multimedia platform with the introduction of countless new features including video sharing, stories, direct messaging, online shopping, promotional tools and analytics. Instagram is linked to other platforms such as online shopping sites, Spotify and most importantly Facebook. The development of this platforms has had quite a number of transformative effects on its users and their engagement with the online world.

Photo by Katka Pavlickova on Unsplash

Which entities compose Instagram’s media ecology? 

Instagram was co-founded and owned by Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom in 2010 (Higgins, 2018). Later, in 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram in a billion-dollar deal (Rushe, 2012). In 2018, eight years after the launch of their popular photo-sharing app, Krieger and Systrom decided to leave the business (Higgins, 2018).

Currently, Instagram is owned by Facebook and its business model is fairly similar what Facebook is doing through Facebook Ads to generate revenue; although it is important to note that Instagram still operates independently (Covert, 2012).

Obtaining income through advertisements is a business strategy that is commonly used among social media sites. Voorveld, van Noort, Muntiga and Bronner (2018) explain that “…consumers’ engagement with social media platforms drives engagement with advertising embedded in these platforms…”. An aspect of digital media that is highly crucial to the success of this business model is the data that social media platforms are able to accumulate to provide metrics for advertisers who in turn generate targeted ads.

Video from CNBC (2019)

Social media platforms give businesses the opportunity to design interactive ads which can boost user engagement with advertising content by up to 47% (Mialki, 2019). With all the new features that Instagram has introduced in recent years, businesses have many choices in regards to how to make users engage with their ad content.

In 2015, Instagram launched a partner programme which is designed to help content creators promote their brands through advertising, marketing and management (Instagram, 2016). Some of the partners that Instagram works with are Fandor, CitizenNet, Kenshoo and SocialCode (Instagram, 2016). Each one of these partners provides a different initiative that helps start-ups and small businesses increase their online presence and network.

There are many other applications with similar photo/video sharing concepts to Instagram such as Pinterest, Snapchat and Tiktok, which also happen to be some of Instagram’s top competitors (Bhasin, 2018). Nonetheless, they are still distinct with their own unique features.

Social media platforms come with all sorts of unique features. Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Pinterest is a good example of how as a platform it offers practicality in conjunction to aesthetics while Instagram is hyper focused on aesthetics and social interactions.

Another example is Snapchat which offers a fun twist to the concept of communicating through pictures and with its main focus being its interactive component by making snaps and stories only available for a limited time.

It is interesting to notice that over the years, Instagram has tried to implement as many features as possible to assimilate the features of existing apps. A very key example is the introduction of Instagram stories which is a clear imitation of Snapchat stories as it mimics the 24-hour limit per story.

Instagram’s regulation happens through two different mediums. Similarly, to any other social networking site, Instagram has certain values towards the content that its users are allowed to post. Instagram’s community guidelines dictate that content containing nudity, violence, inappropriate/offensive connotations is not permitted (The Instagram Team, 2019). The other way in which Instagram is regulated is through filtration of governmental power.

In certain occasions where users misuse social media to post content that is illegal or a threat to people’s safety, governments have taken certain measures that enforce platform owners to remove this type of content (BBC, 2019). Some example of these laws and regulatory measures are Germany’s NetzDG law and Australia’s Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act (BBC, 2019).

According to the Pew Research Center, 67% and 47% of social media users aged 18-29 and 30-49 respectively, use Instagram. Some more interesting Instagram user statistics from Omnicore (2016) reveal that:

  • The percentage of female and male users are 52% and 42% respectively
  • About a third of all internet users are Instagrammers
  • Half a million Instagram users are influencers
An ecology map describing Instagram’s structure as a social media platform. Source of background and logo: Canva.

Socio-political Impact

The simplicity in the process of taking a picture and uploading it on Instagram has transformed both the nature of the app as well as the political aspect of how users are engaging with this platform. Alper (2012, p.12) makes an interesting point about how the use of  Instagram to post something as sensitive as war photography can make a different statement as opposed to how this subject is regarded by professional journalists.

His approach to this idea does not so much reflect upon what is actually represented in pictures rather how Instagram is designed to allow content to be posted in a certain format (e.g. square-shaped border, filtering options, editing tools) (Alper, 2012). This in turn opens up a debate according to Alper (2012, p.12) “…about distinctions between photography and illustration, professional and amateur, and reporting and editorializing.”

The basic idea behind Instagram is to share aesthetic shots of sunsets and selfies which make it seem acceptable to use photo altering tools to make our pictures look ‘nice’ but can the same concept be applied to topics of sensitive and/or political connotations? This is where we can identify the first transformative effect of Instagram on the way people relate to certain socio-political topics as it desensitizes our approach towards events and occasions that would typically trigger an empathetic response.

Why do we feel the need to aestheticize war photography? Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

The University of Michigan conducted a study which revealed that empathy levels have decreased among today’s younger generation compared to the same age group 30 years before (Arbor, 2010). One of the factors that has been coincidentally increasing with this drop in empathy is the use of social media as Pearce (2016) explains.

The second transformative effect of Instagram is its role in the spread of socio-political messages by celebrities and their impact on the public’s credibility towards certain ideals. Users tend to rely more on the word of figures that they believe they have a connection with even if that connection is establish indirectly through social media (Offit cited in Grose, 2019).

Economic Impact

The development of Instagram as one of the most popular social media platforms has introduced a number of changes in the online communication and business landscape (Hashim, 2017). Hashim (2017) explains that Instagram allows for network expansion and marketing through a platform that is not only well-known and well-used but also user friendly, interactive and accessible.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Instagram can certainly be considered as one of the major platforms that provide business tools to run an online business. The change to the app occurred quite recently when Instagram launched an update that allows users to choose between having a business account that is open to the public or to simply enjoy the app for personal use as a private user.

Instagram has played an important role in the careers of online influencers and entrepreneurs as its current business model is allowing them not only to promote themselves but also to run their business through Instagram. Wally and Koshy (2014) mention three reasons why Instagram’s allowance for digital advertising plays an important role in building an online business:

1.     It can be tailored towards a specific audience

2.     It is less costly compared to traditional advertising

3.     It allows consumers to engage and interact with its content

Running a business from home is now made possible through the use of a platform like Instagram. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Taking these factors into consideration, it is convenient for small businesses to take advantage of social media networks to promote their business. Furthermore, Wally and Koshy (2014, p.3) explain that there are three more factors which highlight why social media sites can prove to be efficient business platforms:

1.     The metrics and analytics tools within these apps help to gather data about consumer behavior.

2.     Social networking helps increase brand awareness and credibility

3.     Consumers are able to communicate and build rapport with the brand

With business and marketing it is essential to make products appear appealing to the audience and Instagram’s concept as a photo sharing platform is ideal for this use. Wally and Koshy (2014, p.5) state that “Instagram is a medium designed especially for visuals, its capability to easily share photos on social platforms contributed to its tremendous growth.” Instagram has proven to be 15 times more effective in increasing engagement among users compared to other social media networks (Jenkins cited in Hashim, 2017).

Socio-Cultural Impact

Instagram started out as a photo-sharing app where users could post, edit, like and comment on pictures (Trifiro, 2018). Within the app there are different types of editing features which users can use to modify their pictures by applying filters, manipulating brightness and saturation or including frames and borders. Statistics from the Pew Research Center in 2018 demonstrate that the platforms which younger users prefer are mainly image/video-based like Snapchat and Instagram (Trifiro, 2018, p. 3). Participating in online engagement with other users can foster a sense of belonging to a community. Uses and gratification theory is believed to be one of the main factors that drives users to use Instagram (Sheldon and Bryant, 2016). There are different elements that contribute to user gratification such as:

–       Diversion

–       Building relations

–       Expressing identity

(Sheldon and Bryant, 2016)

Instagram has greatly affected its younger users’ self-esteem. Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Instagram focused studies have discovered that the one of the main reasons which users engage with Instagram is self-promotion (Sheldon and Bryant, 2016). Self-esteem is highly affected by what young adults are exposed to on social media platforms like Instagram where influencer culture practically dictates beauty and body standards (Day, 2019). The compromise of self-esteem and confidence as a result of not being able to adhere to unrealistic notions of beauty has significantly affected mental health and well-being in many young Instagram users (Williams, 2017). Identity formation and expression is an important factor in the development of adolescence as teenagers tend to spend a lot of time on social media (Mirkin, 2017). Consequently, the app has resorted to removing the number of likes that used to be displayed under posts to discourage this behavior (Meisenzahl, 2019). Body positivity and acceptance are notions that are slowly being embraced by the Instagram community with celebrities such as Jameela Jamil, Chrissy Teigen and Demi Lovato encouraging their fans to accept themselves for who they are (Hanson, 2019).

To summarize, initially it only started as a photo sharing platform in 2010 where users could post pictures, like posts and comment. About 10 years ago, the features of this platform were quite limited, but now Instagram is playing a key role in the running of online businesses in terms of economic transformations for entrepreneurs and influencers. As for socio-cultural transformations, there has been a significant impact with the idea that the number of likes on a post signify notions of success, popularity and self-worth. Regarding socio-political transformation, Instagram has impacted our perception towards certain topics desensitized as the distracting nature of social media tends to render our level of attention towards topics of different importance reduced to a short amount of time (Pearce, 2016).


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