Instagram is the social media giant that has transformed western society’s approach to social media content production and consumption since its inception and release in 2010 (Woods, 2013). The photo-sharing platform allows users to produce and share creative and personal photographic content with their friends, family and extended network, while also keeping apprised of the movements and content shared by their favourite celebrities and public profiles in a similar photographically-centred manner. The site’s popularity and social relevance is proven by the 1 billion monthly active users and the 500 million active daily users it boasts across the globe (Smith, 2019). It’s popularity and relevance have allowed the platform to exert a significant amount of impact on the way western society approaches cultural, social, political and economic interactions. By examining the ecology of Instagram and its use and prevalence in everyday life, this article will explore the social network’s influence and transformative effect on everyday western life.
HISTORY OF INSTAGRAM
Instagram was launched by creators and co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger on 6th October 2010 (Instazood, 2018). By December of the same year the social media app had already amassed 1 million users, jumping to 40 million active users by 2012 (Jtoelle, 2016). The app was brought out by social media giant Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion and has continued to grow steadily over its 10 year lifespan (Jtoelle, 2017). The creators and Facebook have continued to add features to the platform to keep it relevant and fresh in the eyes of its user base in the years since its inception, constantly evolving what the platform can offer in order to fit in with the demands of society.
Instagram is a photo-sharing social network site that allowed users to upload creative images and videos to share with their friends and extended network, as well as a short caption to describe their shared content (Rouse, 2017). The idea for Instagram was based off the ‘Foursquare’ application, which was centred around sharing your current location with approved followers in your network and letting them know what you’re up to with a short caption (Rouse, 2017). Systrom and Krieger chose to focus on users sharing their photos rather than locations with their followers (Rouse, 2017) and thus, Instagram was born.
The idea of Instagram may have started out as based around sharing creative photo-content but it has evolved into a platform that offers the opportunity to share a variety of content and communicate with those in your network and beyond, while keeping true to its creative and photographic-orientated roots (Fifteen Design, 2017). It launched as a “mobile photo-sharing social media platform…[with the ability] to edit their images with a selection of filters” but slowly and surely added a stream of additional features such as the ability to post videos, boomerangs, Instagram stories, live stream videos and direct messaging, incorporating popular features from apps such as Snapchat and Facebook messenger to provide a more complete platform for their users (Fifteen Design, 2017).
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT INSTAGRAM?
Since Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, the 3 major social media platforms targeted at similar social demographics, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, have become increasingly similar in what they offer their users (Harbison, 2016). All platforms offer users the ability to share photos, direct message other users, upload photos and stories, as well as caption photos posted or sent. This begs the question: how does Instagram differentiate itself from the other platforms and standout as such a transformative force in our technology-orientated society? The answer to this stems from one of the essential core offerings during its inception, that being the ability to offer users access to high quality edits, creating a more professional “museum” like tone to the platform, as opposed to the more jovial and relaxed tone of snapchat, and the more official, information-based tone of Facebook (Vaynerchuk, 2016). The tone that the platform offers distinguishes itself from its sibling platforms, and makes up an essential component of why it has been able to exert such transformative influence with its increasing use.
INSTAGRAM’S BUSINESS MODEL
Instagram was brought by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 despite not ever being profitable in its two operational years since 2010 (Fifteen Design, 2017). The new owners sought to turn a profit from their new investment and they went about this by introducing advertising onto the platform through sponsored posts (Fifteen Design, 2017). While this introduction was generally met with cries of outrage from established users (as is usually the case!), Instagram “implemented strict guidelines for the companies and ads they allowed on the site” as well as rolling out the ads via a “slow process” (Marie, 2014). Instagram first became profitable in 2013 and in 2018 it was estimated to have made up roughly 28.2% of the mobile advertising revenue for the Facebook company, grossing around $9 billion (Rioja, 2019). Instagram’s main source of revenue is advertising. Brands pay the application to post advertisements in the form of sponsored posts, carousel ads and Instagram stories that promote the brand in a manner in keeping with Instagram’s professional and visually captivating appearance (Bhatt, 2018).
Instagram’s main competitor is Snapchat, directly competing with the alternate social media platform as they both offer a number of similar features and both are targeted specifically at mobile users (Rioja, 2019). When Instagram introduced stories back in 2016 it signalled its intent to directly compete with Snapchat, and it immediately had a detrimental effect on the rival platform’s financials, losing 1.5% of users in the aftermath of Instagram’s introduction.
INSTAGRAM’S ECOLOGY & TRANSFORMATIVE EFFECT
SOCIETY’S ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION
Instagram has had a revolutionary impact on business strategy, as well as creating a whole new market for jobs, relating to and based around the platform’s use. The profile-based set up of the platform allows businesses to use the app to post content relevant to the construction and maintenance of the brand (Craig, 2019). The timeline format and access to public profiles also allows for businesses to keep apprised of the latest trends, something that is particularly important in industries such as fashion and tech (Milnes, 2016), while it has also completely transformed the way brands advertise, shifting away from the more traditional, campaign-focused approach to a more constantly shifting and fluid, that allows businesses to take a stance or seize opportunities regarding current events, when and if they happen. This allows companies the opportunity to constantly monitor their image in the market, which has also led to the rise of new job opportunities, who’s responsibility it is to manage a business’ online social media presence.
This has, most notably, given rise to the ‘Instagram influencer’, individuals with established social media presences chosen to represent brands by posting content relating to businesses on their Instagram accounts (Haran, 2019). An increased focus on representing businesses on Instagram has also led to the birth of roles surrounding the creation and management of content on Instagram. This includes social media marketers, social media strategy consultants, content creators and content promoters, as well as more technically focused jobs behind the scenes which support the platform and businesses in a more operational sense, such as engineers and policy officers.
NEW ERA IN POLITICS
Instagram’s influence in terms of politics is also clear to see, giving politicians a platform to present an image of themselves that is most appealing to voters, while also affording users the ability to express opinions and encourage activism. Similarly to what companies can employ to promote their brand, Instagram affords politicians a platform to build a positive image of themselves and their campaign in the eyes of voters. While his controversial (and sometimes outrageous!) Twitter profile and posts may be more famous, Donald Trump’s Instagram presence illustrates this point perfectly, highlighting how the platform is used to present the ideologies of his campaign, and what he stands for to voters. The difference between this platform and his Twitter is more in keeping with the idea behind Instagram’s creation: to allow users to present a professional profile of themselves to the community.
The introduction of social media and its increased popularity have led to an “unprecedented ease of information distribution” which has seen platforms like Instagram revolutionise political activism (Lau, 2017). While the access to extended networks and giving users a place to voice their opinions, a staple of most social media platforms, is an essential part of Instagram’s influence over political activism, its “visual-audio attraction” and the simplicity with which it provides this is its main transformative effect in this area (Lau, 2017).
The platform, for the above reason, has been criticised for “favouring style over function” when it comes to political activism (Barakat, 2017) in recent years. The ability to stylize one’s photo in the name of political causes has given birth to these claims, with many critics believing that support of causes becomes a way for individuals to further build on their public image, as mentioned regarding politicians above.
EFFECT ON SOCIETY & CULTURE
Instagram’s social and cultural influence cannot be understated. The concept of presenting one’s personal brand is once again present in these aspects of Instagram’s transformative effects, and this combined with the visually orientated concept of the photo sharing platform has birthed the concept of presenting the perfect image of one’s self, playing on society’s obsession with perfecting flaws (Mariella, 2014). This is seen through the ability to edit images further and further within the app, altering and enhancing features of ourselves we may not like (Mariella, 2014). This idea is perfectly encapsulated by the Instagram filters that can be applied to photos, that manage to present the person photographed in an attractive light.
Increased use of the platform has also led to us attempting to present our lives in the most attractive way possible to our followers, becoming caught up in making them jealous through presenting activities in the most attractive light. This notion has permeated events in real life, often catering to the desire of attendants to grab an ‘Instagram worthy shot.’ While there are many examples of this, the one that springs to mind that I most recently saw is people lining up to get Instagram photos in front of Flemington race course at the Melbourne cup. The fact that people take time out of their big day out at the races illustrates this point perfectly.
From this we can conclude that Instagram has had a revolutionary and transformative effect on Western society and cultural interactions as a whole. Economically, it has given birth to a range of roles that solely focus on the creation and management of social media content and the strategy behind it, while also redefining how brands market and advertise their product to their audience. Politically, it has acted as a platform for politicians to present their ideologies and views to an ever increasingly networked audience, while also visually aiding the causes for political activists. Socially and culturally it has redefined how we present the image of ourselves, moving society towards perfecting and hiding our flaws, embracing the idea of the perfect self. It is for these reasons that Instagram can be considered as having a radically transformative effect on our society.
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