As social networking sites have expanded over the last decade, Instagram stands out due to the simplistic and beautiful nature of the application. Our goal is to review the history of Instagram, examine the current site, apply current theories from the communication studies field, and recommend possible changes. A complex understanding of the reasons for Instagram’s success as well as the short comings of the site could lead to improved communication within social networking sites on both an individual and a large scale.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Instagram is worth a billion. Instagram epitomizes the aggregation of creativity, innovation, and ambition centralized in Silicon Valley. When Instagram launched in 2010, it had three goals in mind. The first goal was to create beautiful and inspiring photos. While this may seem like an obvious, even arbitrary goal, this conceptualization was highly innovative during a period when start-ups were focusing on telling people where you were rather sharing what it looked like. The second goal of Instagram was to integrate social media, this was accomplished by allowing users to link their Twitters or Facebook. However, Instagram also established its own social network that focuses solely on the photos and videos uploaded by users. The third and final goal of Instagram is to create a great user experience. Instagram strives to create a great experience for the user and their followers. The results of these goals are measurable in Instagram’s 150 million plus users and $ 1 billion dollar buyout by Facebook in April of 2012. However, the results of these goals are less measurable in the value that it brings to maintaining social networks and interpersonal relationships amongst its followers.
The history of Instagram fits the typical Silicon Valley start-up mold. It features two incredibly smart Stanford graduates who were creative, reactive to the market, and understood their clientele well. When Kevin Systrom and Mike Kriger met, Systrom was working on his own project called Burbn, which was the stereotypical check-in system that was common during 2008-2010. When the two decided to team, up they pivoted away from Burbn. Which is a nice way of saying “we’ve screwed up and we are starting over” (Swisher, 2013). The two dumped the idea of a web-based program and wanted to focus on an app-only design that was targeted towards mobile users. Part of this decision was influenced by the June 2010 release of the iPhone 4 (Swisher, 2013). The pair’s initial breakthrough was conceptual. Rather than developing an application that focused on a check-in system with the option to share a photo, they opted for a photo sharing system that made checking-in optional. However, Instagram’s arguably biggest breakthrough came from someone outside of the pair.
During the summer of 2010, Systrom went on a vacation with his girlfriend Nicole. While they were spending time together, Nicole told Systrom that she probably would not use Instagram because the photos would never be as good as the photos a friend of hers took. Her friend would take photos and put them through filter apps. Systrom immediately went back to the hotel and developed Instagram’s first Filter, X-Pro II. Once Systrom returned to San Francisco, the team knew they held a market-making formula for success. They set a tentative release date and on October 6, 2010 25,000 people registered with Instagram.
Instagram is centralized around three main features and all of these features reinforce Instagram’s three goals. Instagram allows users to enhance or modify their photos from a variety of pre-loaded filters. The different features allow users to create unique and inspiring photographs that they can be proud of. Filters also help apply a certain emotional undertone to the photo such as nostalgia, sadness, or happiness. Filters also enhance the photographs by drawing the attention toward a focal point within the picture. These filters are continually updated and provide a highly demanded feature that keeps users continually uploading pictures with their own adjustments added on.
The integration of a social network is another important feature that is crucial to the maintenance of social networks. Instagram is a tool of utility, users use Instagram as a platform of self-promotion (Kelly, 2013). People that create beautiful and inspirational photos will want to share them. One of the main ways that Instagram achieves social networking is by linking a user’s account to their other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, Instagram also has its own social framework. When a user opens their Instagram app on their smartphones, they are brought to their home page, their home page features recent photographs from whomever the user is following. The user can choose to follow just their friends, or a user can even follow a celebrity to see what the celebrity it up to. Users also have their own profiles which feature a short “About Me” section and a “Profile Picture” but personal information can be as limited as the user wants it to be; there is no criteria for personal disclosure on the user interface. The main attraction of a user’s profile is their photographs, users can share aspects of their lives and tell a story by the photos; whether it’s a series of photos from a family vacation, or a candid photo from a crazy weekend in Vegas. Uploading a photo to Instagram is an experience in itself. In a world where mobility and convenience are crucial, Instagram reigns king. A user can take a photo, choose a filter, and upload it in under ten seconds. Convenience and mobility allow users to capture memories ranging from a candid moment to a carefully planned photo. One of most interesting features of Instagram is the use of hashtags. Hashtags can serve a few purposes. They can be used to categorize the photo, and they can be used to describe what is actually going on in the photograph. For example, on a typical Thursday a user can expect to see the hashtag #tbt on their Instagram. #tbt initially indicates two things 1) the user who tagged their photo with this hashtag is recalling old, warm memories of a past event, 2) the event in the photo most likely occurred at a previous date. Users can search any hashtag and find photos that people uploaded and tagged #tbt.
In recent years mobile phones have become rapidly popular, people rely on their mobile phones to plan their days, to share personal experiences, to include their friends in their life, and even to validate their relationships with their friends (Ling and Ytrri, 2002). Instagram takes advantage of the “share” and “include” aspects of Ling and Ytrri’s assessment of the role of mobile phones in interpersonal relationships. By differentiating themselves from photo-hosting websites such as Picasa and Flickr, which are slow and bulky, Instagram has created a new culture of photography through its simple and accessible user interface. One of the greatest aspects of Instagram is that it is light and easy to use. It is extremely easy to link a user’s Facebook and Twitter to their Instagram, and it is incredibly simple to navigate a user’s profile. By creating a simple user interface, Instagram is accessible by people who have even the most rudimentary grasp of technology.
The idea of photo-sharing is not a typically new invention. The camera was invented for the sole purpose of capturing memories that we intend on sharing with people in the future. Instagram allows users to upload, edit, and share a photo under ten seconds. This feature increases the value of Instagram to social networking and maintaining interpersonal relationships.
Instagram premiered at a fortuitous time where point and shoot cameras were becoming obsolete due to the rise of the smartphone equipped with an adequate camera. It was easier to carry just one digital device than two which made individuals more likely to use their phone’s camera. Sadly, the cameras on phones were at best mediocre and Instagram was a tool to disguise this and make for a prettier end product. After improving the original picture, through an array of filters, the user posts these and enables friends to view and like the picture. This alteration and improvement is described in Walther’s Hyperpersonal Model as the action of senders selectively presenting themselves in order to improve face. This model describes an array of interactions that take place through the social networking site, Instagram. The news feed search features enable users to find and follow their friends and see new postings. Instagram allows a brief description with the picture, which leaves a gap in information when looking through the news feed. Users fill in this gap of information, leading to an idealized sense the individual, in part due to the added filter. Someone can then decide whether or not to provide feedback to another user through signifying they like the post by tapping the heart symbol next to the picture. This is an example of the positive feedback described in the Hyperpersonal Model that reinforces someone’s good self-perception.
This face improvement and the interaction of friends providing positive feedback of a user’s posts through likes and comments are the two greatest strengths of Instagram. The exclusion of a method for users to provide negative feedback improves interpersonal relationships through the computer mediated communication.
Another aspect of the Hyperpersonal Model is the convenience of the channel, which is one of the strengths of the Instagram application. Just as soon as cameras were available on phones, there was a need to quickly and conveniently share the pictures on social media. Instagram filled this niche and improved it through the addition of filters. It has stayed relevant overtime with the addition of videos and the ability to share pictures over multiple sites like Facebook and Twitter.
One thing the creators of Instagram did not foresee in their development of the app was the boom in social media marketing and strategic communication. As leaders of groups and organizations across campus, we may perceive Instagram as being a great medium to convey a message or for marketing but due to the restrictions on having multiple accounts, only being able to upload from a mobile devices, and not being able to re post pictures, it is not being utilized for its possible potential. Although these improvements are not directly related to interpersonal communication, being able to reach people through a digital media could improve a sense of community and closeness on campus, which would increase our interpersonal relationships.
Although Instagram has been thriving since its launch, there is always room for improvement. Through the lens of the Hyperpersonal Model and Granovetter’s 1973 research on social networking and tie strength, there are four specific improvements to the app that would increase the technological and social aspects of Instagram. These are individualizing the application to learn filter preferences for each user, allowing multiple accounts, developing non-mobile platforms for sharing and adding the ability to repost pictures.
To increase user friendliness, Instagram should increase convenience and make changes to the basic interface of the app in order to appeal to a more broad population including organizations who could use it as a marketing tool. The Hyperpersonal Model describes how individuals will be more likely to use a channel of communication if it is convenient. A small change to the app that would make the process of posting a picture faster would be personalizing the order of filters so that each user has their most used filters as the easiest to access. Another way to make the app more convenient would be to have a way to post pictures from a non-mobile device such as a desktop or laptop computer. This would not only maximize the convenience but broaden the user base to include people who do not have smartphones.
Organizations and companies are constantly trying to get word out through advertising. The absence of ads on Instagram is great because it allows people to choose whose pictures they see and makes them feel empowered and in control of the app. This feeling would not be altered if companies and organizations could set up accounts and allow people to follow them. This would increase convenience for people and create a bond with organizations they support through computer mediated communication. In order to facilitate this change, Instagram would have to allow multiple accounts to be associated with a single phone.
The current system ties a user’s phone to their account, making it difficult for organizations to have a dedicated Instagram account unless someone is willing to sacrifice their Instagram account and run the organization’s account through a personal phone. Ideally, with this change accounts could be accessible on any phone, with the correct login and password so multiple people could post to the same account. This makes Instagram more social by allowing more personal interactions with organizations users support and advancing the technological infrastructure, making posting more convenient.
When comparing other social networking sites, like Twitter, to Instagram, something else is missing from the app, the ability to repost. The absence of this feature limits the ability for pictures to become viral or spread to more than just an individual’s followers. Although it is easy to share pictures with other social networking sites and platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, it is impossible to share within the interface. Altering these functions could lead to improved interpersonal relationships by utilizing the bridging ties within social networks and allow for more effective transmission of messages from one friend group to another. In practice, this could be as simple as someone posting a picture of what Market Square is serving for lunch, which is then reposted by a friend, causing a friend of that friend to decide to go to Potbelly’s instead.
Due to the large following of Instagram, any improvements would contribute to greater communication and relationships on a massive scale. The addition of these suggestions could aid in improving both Instagram and the interpersonal communication mediated by the app.