Instagram’s 10th birthday – does it really share love?

National Geographic Instagram photos
National Geographic

Instagram’s 10th birthday is a good time to look at its impact on society. Instagram launched on 6 October 2010. Lots of social media platforms launch, enjoy a moment of glory and then disappear. Vine anybody? Why has Instagram succeeded where others have failed? The latest Ofcom Online Nation report shows 60% of the UK’s online population uses Instagram.

Instagram’s impact on society and culture has been immense. ‘Selfie’ and ‘no filter’ are now part of common parlance. It’s impact has also been negative with people risking their lives to take death-defying selfies and invading remote beauty spots in search of the perfect Insta moment. That’s before we even consider the mental health impact of constantly seeing visions of artificially manufactured ‘perfection’ of the ‘influencers’.

When Instagram launched it was clearly focused as a photography app to let you share your pictures. Instagram’s original tagline was “Capture and share the world’s moments.” But there were already well-established and popular photography platforms that did that. Flickr launched in 2004 and the original concept was actually far more social than it eventually became. FlickrLive was a chat room where you could upload and share your photos for everyone to see or send them directly to friends. Exactly what Instagram did.

Instagram achieved early growth gaining one million users in just two months, despite being limited to just iOS so only iPhone owners could use it. Surprisingly it didn’t even release an Android version until April 2012 which was followed by a limited web version in November 2012.

Today Instagram’s new tagline is ‘Bringing you closer to the people and things you love.” Despite the use of love in the tagline it feels less beautiful than the original concept. The people it brings you closer to are often influencers with millions of followers and the things aren’t treasures from your personal moments but a brand attempting to flog you a product.

Instagram’s 10th birthday first photo

The first Instagram photo was a picture of a Mexican street dog posted by Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom.

View this post on Instagram

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A post shared by Kevin Systrom (@kevin) on

Influencer marketing is a $10 billion industry and its growth was largely fueled by YouTube and Instagram. Although it’s worth remembering this isn’t where it started. The first influencers in the ‘influencer marketing’ sense of the word were the early bloggers who carved out niches in consumer technology, parenting, enterprise technology, pets and a myriad of other specialisms. In 2008 when I ran a PR consultancy we ran one of the first ‘influencer marketing’ events when we invited ‘mummy bloggers’ to the launch of Chuggington on the BBC.

Many of Instagram’s innovations aren’t actually innovations at all. It simply copies ideas from other platforms and often succeeds not because its features are better but because of its sheer number of users. Instagram now has more than one billion users globally. Undoubtedly a huge part of Instagram’s success stems from its acquisition by Facebook in April 2012. Instagram’s launch of short 15 second videos in 2013 arguably played a big part in the failure of Twitter’s six-second Vine video service, which personally I was a fan of.

Many people wondered if Snapchat would supplant Instagram in the hearts and minds of people who wanted to share images and videos with friends. It didn’t happen, probably because Snapchat’s focus is on creative messaging between individuals and groups rather than publicly sharing images and videos.

A more likely contender for Instagram’s crown is TikTok. Facebook has responded in typical fashion by attempting to clone TikTok’s popularity by launching its copycat ‘Reels’. It’s too early to judge the success of Reels, but initial reactions suggest it won’t do much to dent TikTok’s popularity.

One area where Facebook is doing genuinely interesting innovation is by integrating its messaging services so users can seamlessly message each other regardless of if they use Messenger, Instagram or WhatsApp. Regulators and legislators are rightly concerned by this flexing of Facebook’s corporate muscle.

I’ve got mixed views. I’m deeply troubled by Facebook’s dominance of the internet as its walled garden approach has killed much of the innovation and excitement of the early days. However, practically enabling inter-app messaging makes perfect sense. Not being able to do so is as ridiculous a notion as not being able to phone or send an SMS text message to someone on a different mobile network or telecoms provider. A challenging aspect of modern life is monitoring multiple messaging apps and remembering where a message is that you need to respond to. Was it in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram, Teams, Slack, LinkedIn or something else? The problem is Facebook integrating just its own apps makes it more dominant and doesn’t solve the practical problem for users.

If we discount Instagram’s own Instagram account then the most followed account is Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo with 239 million followers (on 4 October 2020). The rest of the top ten is dominated by celebrities. The biggest non-celebrity account is National Geographic which is the eleventh most followed account with 145 million followers, perhaps not surprising as the original print magazine’s main claim to fame was its stunning photography. Celebrities dominate the top 50 most followed Instagram accounts with just eight accounts not belonging to actors, TV personalities, sports stars, musicians or similar.

The latest celebrity to join Instagram is 94-year-old Sir David Attenborough who broke Jennifer Aniston’s record for the fastest time to gain a million followers.

Instagram’s largest markets are the USA, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Russia.

Instagram users by country graph
Statista

I’m an early adopter when it comes to new technology. I started this blog in 2003, making it one of the world’s first PR blogs. I owned several models of Windows Mobile phones (don’t believe the myth that Apple’s iPhone was the first smartphone – all it did was copy other people’s ideas to create a simpler product that it marketed well). I sent my first tweet on 2 January 2007 and later that year ran one of the world’s first Twitter campaigns for a senior politician. I created Snapchat and TikTok accounts when both platforms were in their infancy. Although I only published my first TikTok videos this year.

Why am I telling you this? Because I don’t really ‘get’ Instagram. I totally get it from a professional perspective and advise clients on how to use it effectively. But personally I don’t ‘get’ it. TikTok has some amazing content and I swipe through videos every day. I’m excited by the possibilities of TikTok and can imagine a myriad ways I could use it personally and professionally. I blogged recently about some of my favourite ‘serious’ TikTok accounts.

In contrast, my Instagram account sits on my home screen and I force myself to open it, but rarely see anything that excites me. If I see a great photo my reaction is usually to wonder why they didn’t just share it on Twitter or Facebook. Instagram is definitely the social platform I would miss least if it disappeared. My first rather uninspiring Instagram picture was in November 2012 at a Communicate magazine conference. The conference was great. The Instagram picture less so.

What will the next 10 years bring for Instagram. It certainly can’t continue its meteoric growth.

Please comment here as it lets everyone who visits my PR blog to see it rather than scattering it on other social networks where only some people see it.

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