For the Gram
This post will profile Instagram, explaining its history, regulations and critically analysing how it has been transformative socially, culturally and economically. I have divided the response into three sections:
- Instagram Profile- it’s history and Instagram today.
- Instagram self-regulation.
- Transformative impact:
- Social capital
- Culture of self-branding
- Privacy dilemma
- Social interaction
- Social change
- Business marketing
Part 1: Instagram profile
Instagram is an online photo and video sharing service connecting users through images. Instagram was launched in October 2010 for iOS devices (Desreumaux, 2014). Within two months of launching, Instagram had one million users. In April 2012 it was launched for Android devices and has continued to grow in popularity and in features.
Founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was bought by Facebook in April 2012 for $1 billion (Brandwatch, 2018). Headed by Adam Mosseri, Instagram has over 550 employees (Omnicore, 2018). Mosseri oversees the entire business, including “engineering, product and operations” (Instagram, 2018a).
Instagram was created for mobile photo sharing. Users can add filters, edit content, post multiple images or videos in a single post as well as tag other pages and locations. “Stories” were added in 2016 to compete with its main competitor Snapchat (Constine, 2016). Snapchat allows users to post photos or videos and send messages to other users sequentially. Each post is accessible for 24 hours. Instagram’s other competitors include social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and photo sharing platforms such as Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest.
Audience, users, community
A survey conducted in October 2018 revealed the largest demographic of active Instagram users across the globe, were men between the age of 18 and 24 years (Statista, 2018a). 68% of Instagram users are women and 59% of users are between 18 and 29 years (Omnicore, 2018). According to this source, Instagram has 500 million daily active users.
Advertising has increased and is now incorporated between “stories” and posts. There are now roughly 2 million advertisers on Instagram (Instagram, 2018). Mobile ad revenue is estimated to reach $6.84 billion US in 2018 (Statista, 2018b).
Businesses are increasingly using Instagram to sell and promote their product or brand. There are over 25 million active businesses on Instagram (Instagram, 2018b). 60% of people say they discover new products on Instagram and 200 million users visit at least one business profile daily.
Part 2: Regulations
Many “internet communities”, including Instagram are self-regulatory, constructing “their own norms and standards” (Hamelink, 2003, p. 39). However, as information in a digital age moves in all directions, it is difficult for regulators to enforce codes of practice. Moreover, it is not always clear they are justified according to public interest as this concept is hugely contentious. One example of the failure of Instagram’s community guidelines is a case regarding the page, crazyjewishmom.
Crazyjewishmom posted two anti-semitic images to her page after being sent the first one by the same page that posted the second photo (Friedman-Siegel, 2018). Initially, Crazyjewishmom reported the posts. However, Instagram rejected that the images violated community guidelines. She then decided to repost the image to highlight the failure of Instagram’s regulations. When she posted, Instagram removed the post for breaching community guidelines. This demonstrates the way self-regulations are problematic because there is a “lack of transparency of rules and process” (Lunt & Livingstone, 2012, p. 25). Although Instagram users could highlight the problems with Instagram’s policies by responding, Instagram was not under any obligation to make changes.
Regulations are also difficult to enforce. This is demonstrated by the Instagram page, genderless_nipples. According to Instagram’s rules, female nipples are sexual and hence will be removed whereas male nipples are permitted. One page, genderless_nipples challenged this, posting close up photos of nipples, making it impossible to discriminate male from female nipples. Instagram removed some of the page’s content. However, the page simply reposted. Even if the account was deleted by Instagram, they could create a new account or share content through an alternative platform. These “pragmatic arguments” suggest regulations are rendered redundant in a digital age (Black, 1985, p. 28).
Instagram justifies its guidelines by claiming they are in the public interest. However, there is an equally valid public interest argument based on “libertarian and individualistic philosophy” that regulations impede freedom of speech, something crucial in facilitating “a free marketplace of ideas” (Feintuck & Varney, 2006, p. 57) (Black, 1985, p. 28). In the case of genderless_nipples, it seems freedom of speech ought to have prevailed because these policies were reinforcing gender inequality and the archaic belief that female nipples are more sexual than male nipples.
Instagram often has to “compromise between competing interest groups” (Lunt & Livingstone, 2012, p. 22). Instagram’s community guidelines regarding female nudity could be said to promote gender inequality and hence fail to act in the public interest. However, Instagram has a “global and borderless” community and its guidelines ought to reflect that (Anderson, 2007, p. 94). This makes the task for regulators difficult as Instagram must codify a range of worldviews.
Part 3: Transformative impact
Instagram is a visually engaging platform that has been transformative for individual users as well as businesses and other groups. Firstly, Instagram has transformed social capital, giving rise to a culture of self-branding. However, the control over one’s personal identity can come at the cost of individual privacy. Instagram has also transformed the way individuals interact, connecting to dating apps and facilitating connections between people. Instagram has also been effective in bringing about social change. Lastly, I will consider the way Instagram has transformed how businesses market themselves, considering the rise of ambassadors and digital influencers.
Social capital transformed
The decentralisation of interaction in a digital age has challenged traditional conceptions of consumers, distributors and producers. This has effectively transformed social capital, as power has been redistributed and users may document their lives in a perfectly orchestrated ‘highlight reel’ (Poster, 1995, p. 54). The “former audience” is not only interacting in the conversation but can also be a voice of influence (Dan Gillmor as cited in Rosen, 2006). This unprecedented control has fortified the importance of one’s ‘personal brand’ and transformed social capital.
It can be difficult to discriminate the truth in an age of information overload. Social capital can determine where we place our trust. Whether we are choosing a new fitness regime or skincare product, we often look to sources that we believe in. Social capital can be so powerful that users often look to particular sources for guidance well beyond their expertise.
For instance, ‘fitspo’ (fitness inspiration), Chontel Duncan has a large Instagram following and is particularly well known for her ‘fit pregnancy’. Although she lacks qualifications beyond fitness and business, her followers will often ask her for advice about pregnancy (Chontel Duncan, 2017).
Culture of self-branding
Instagram has fortified the notion of “self-branding” as users treat the self as a “salable commodity” (Marwick, 2013, p. 166). This has created a culture in which individuals are preoccupied with their digital identities and how well they measure up in the “attention economy” (Marwick, 2015, p. 138).
The ‘attention economy’ calculates something’s value according to its “capacity to attract” the eye “in a media-saturated, information-rich world” (Marwick, 2015, p. 138). Content is endorsed through a quantifiable social currency: ‘Likes’, ‘follows’ ‘shares’ and ‘comments’ (Marwick, 2015, p. 142). This addictive reward system means individuals will trade personal “data” for “social reinforcement” and the “immediate return of attention” (Reiman, 2012, p. 111) (Marwick, 2015, p. 142). Digital influencers are the most successful in the attention economy, successfully constructing an identity that “feels authentic” and through their “online performance” are “famous to a niche group of people” (Marwick, 2013, p. 114) (Senft, 2008, p. 25).
Authenticity is crucial to self-branding. This gives rise to a tension between having a “business targeted” mindset and presenting oneself “authentically (Marwick, 2013, p 167). The lifestyle blogger demonstrates this tension as they must romanticise the “ordinary” while presenting their lives as lived (Abidin, 2016, p. 3). That way they are true and relatable, but also interesting. Authenticity is achieved in numerous ways. Some influencers directly engage with followers. Others reveal their private lives to a greater capacity.
Steph Claire Smith has 1.3 million followers on Instagram. Her page perfects the balance between authentic and business focused. She opens up about her struggle with binge eating and self-love. However, her page is also filled with brand endorsements and promoting her businesses: Keep It Cleaner, Soda Shades and Midnight Co.
Captioned, “Isn’t it sad that there was once a day I would consider editing this before putting it up..”, this post demonstrates how she has struck this balance, posting about insecurities yet tagging her business Keep It Cleaner. It also reveals how digital influencers make their lives “more available” and “real” to bolster social capital (Marwick, 2013, p. 114).
Not all Instagram users have high levels of engagement. Building social capital involves gaining followers who will engage and interact with posts because it is measured according to the social media currency of ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘comments’. Digital influencers open up their personal lives and relationships to develop a more personal experience. This creates “higher user engagement” as users experience “greater satisfaction” (Gangi & Wasko, 2016, p. 56).
Instagram has also transformed social interaction. Instagram is linked to other apps including Facebook and Twitter as well as dating apps such as Bumble, Tinder and Grindr. Dating app users can link their Instagram account so that other users may see their photos. This is often used as a strategy to build one’s following as the number of followers one has is crucial for building social capital. However, it is also used to increase their appeal on dating apps as potential matches have direct access to their ‘highlight reel’.
Instagram itself is often used as a dating app. The phrase “sliding into DM’s” refers to the way users will often send a direct message to another user who is of romantic interest (“Navigating Instagram’s”, 2018, p. 2). Furthermore, Instagram provides a “subtle way of expressing interest through likes and comments”.
Instagram has been effective in gaining traction for important social issues and movements. Users want to be seen to be participating and supporting various causes to build social capital as online identity is often constructed through “acts of alignment” (Seargeant & Tagg, 2014, p. 9). For instance, Steph Smith is involved in the Girls Make Your Move campaign, drawing more attention to the movement and encouraging support. Larsen (as cited in Marwick, 2013, p. 233), points out that the “eventual social benefits” of “public living” outweigh the negative consequences. That is because it helps draw attention to issues disregarded or considered ‘taboo’ in public spaces. Hashtags, geotagging and other tagging tools enable users to build support around issues such as #movember, making it easier to promote and support associated events such as triathlons.
The Privacy dilemma
Sharing one’s life on Instagram opens up individuals to public scrutiny and criticism. This is particularly the case for those with greater social capital. “Mainstream celebrities are expected to protect their privacy” (Marwick, 2013, p. 143). However, “micro-celebrities” have earned their celebrity status through broadcasting their private lives online and hence must remain visible and transparent or they will “lose this attention” (Marwick, 2013, p. 143).
Instagram gives users significant control over their personal privacy. However, the nature of the internet can undermine control. Once it is shared, it cannot be controlled because other users may screen shot or share the content (Marwick, 2013, p. 150). Moreover, Instagram has a broad right to use any of the photos you share.
Instagram has transformed how businesses market themselves. For instance, digital influencers are increasingly used as ambassadors. Many influencers are paid to share “highly personal, opinion-laden promotions of products/services” (Abidin, 2016, p. 3). They effectively monetise their personal brand as businesses take advantage of their large following to boost their name.
Moreover, businesses will employ different strategies to foster engagement. According to Strugatz (2014), using the colour green in images encourages engagement whereas yellow and blue often drives purchases. Moreover, filters are not as effective for “optimizing e-commerce” and indeed some filters negatively impact e-commerce.
This response created an Instagram profile, explaining its history, regulations and critically analysing how it has been socially and culturally transformative. I divided the post into three sections:
- Instagram Profile- it’s history and Instagram today.
- Instagram self-regulation.
- Transformative impact: Social, culture and economic.
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