Image: Instagram

October 6 marks Instagram’s tenth birthday. Having amassed more than a billion active users worldwide, the app has changed radically in that decade – from new ownership (Facebook acquired the company in 2012) and features (think: seamless shopping and TikTok-like Reels) to the rise of influencers. And it has changed us – from where we shop and where we look to for wardrobe and beauty inspiration to how we communicate. With these things in mind, here are five ways that Instagram has made an impact over the past decade … 

1. Instagram’s evolution

When it was launched on October 6, 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was an iPhone-only app. The user could take photos (and only take photos — the app could not load existing images from the phone’s gallery) within a square frame. These could be shared, with an enhancing filter if desired. Other users could comment or like the images. That was it.

Since then, the platform has grown rapidly and been at the forefront of an increasingly visual social media landscape. In 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for a deal worth $1 billion, which in retrospect probably seems cheap given that Instagram is now one of the most profitable jewels in the Facebook crown.

Instagram has integrated new features over time, but it did not invent all of them. Instagram Stories – with its more than half a billion daily users – was shamelessly borrowed from Snapchat in 2016. By way of its “Stories” feature, Instagram enabled users to post 10-second content bites that disappear after 24 hours. The rivers of casual and intimate content (later integrated into Facebook) are widely considered to have revitalized the app. Similarly, IGTV is Instagram’s answer to YouTube’s longer-form video. And if the recently-released Reels is not a TikTok clone, we are not sure what else it could be.

2. Under the influencers

Instagram is largely responsible for the rapid professionalization of the influencer industry. Exports have estimated that the influencer industry would grow to $9.7 billion in 2020, though COVID-19 has since taken a toll on this sector. Nonetheless, as early as 2011, professional lifestyle bloggers throughout Southeast Asia were moving to Instagram, turning it into a brimming marketplace. They sold ad space via post captions and monetized selfies through sponsored products. Such vernacular commerce pre-dates Instagram’s Paid Partnership feature, which launched in late-2017.

The use of images as a primary mode of communication, as opposed to the text-based modes of the blogging era, facilitated an explosion of aspiring influencers (and an explosion in copyright-centric litigation, including against famous users). The threshold for turning oneself into an online brand was dramatically democratized. 

Instagrammers started to rely more heavily on photography and their looks — enhanced by filters and editing built into the platform. Soon, the “extremely professional and polished, the pretty, pristine, and picturesque” started to become boring. Finstagrams – a name for “fake” accounts established by users – and secondary accounts proliferated and allowed users to display behind-the-scenes snippets and authenticity through calculated performances of amateurism in some cases.

3. Insta-business as usual

As influencers commercialized Instagram captions and photos, those with e-commerce shops turned hashtag streams into advertorial campaigns. They relied on their followers to publicize their wares and amplify their reach.Bigger businesses followed suit and so did advice from marketing experts for how best to “optimize” engagement

In mid-2016, Instagram belatedly launched business accounts and tools, allowing companies easy access to back-end analytics. The introduction of the “swipe-able carousel” of story content in early 2017 further expanded commercial opportunities for businesses by multiplying ad space per Instagram post. This year, in the tradition of Instagram corporatizing user innovations, it announced Instagram Shops would allow businesses to sell products directly via a digital storefront. Users had previously done this via links.

4. Sharenting

Instagram is not just where we tell the visual story of ourselves, but also where we co-create each other’s stories. Nowhere is this more evident than the way parents posting their children’s daily lives and milestones, giving rise to what has been coined as “sharenting.” Many children’s Instagram presence begins before they are even born. Sharing ultrasound photos has become a standard way to announce a pregnancy. Over 1.5 million public Instagram posts are tagged #genderreveal

Aside from being an interesting trend in what people are sharing, the rise in sharenting raises privacy questions: who owns a child’s image? Can children withdraw publishing permission later? These issues are particularly relevant given that sharenting entails handing over children’s data to Facebook as part of the larger realm of surveillance capitalism. A saying that emerged around the same time as Instagram was born still rings true: “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” 

In other words, we pay for Instagram’s “free” platform with our user data and our children’s data, too, when we share photos of them, which Facebook and Instagram can then monetize in furtherance of their “core business model.”

5. Seeing through the frame

The apparent “Instagrammability” of a meala place, or an experience has seen the rise of numerous visual trends and tropes. Short-lived Instagram Stories and disappearing Direct Messages add more spaces to express more things without the threat of permanence.

The events of 2020 have shown our ways of seeing on Instagram reveal the possibilities and pitfalls of social media. In June, racial justice activism on #BlackoutTuesday, while extremely popular, also had the effect of swamping the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with black squares, and thereby, making it more difficult to find relevant and important content. At the same time, Instagram, like its parent company platform, is rife with disinformation and conspiracy theories, which hijack the look and feel of authoritative content in an attempt to dupe users. The template of popular Instagram content can see familiar aesthetics weaponized to spread misinformation.

Ultimately, the last decade has seen Instagram become one of the main lenses through which we see the world, personally and politically. Users communicate and frame the lives they share with family, friends and the wider world – for better or worse. 

Tama Leaver is an Associate Professor in Internet Studies at Curtin University. Crystal Abidin is a Senior Research Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University. Tim Highfield is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield. (Intro courtesy of TFL).