It is undeniable that social media is now an integral part of much of our shared cultural lives.
From keeping up with friends, to company’s marketing their products and services, to the sharing and publishing of art, and to even presidents and leaders announcing political changes, social media does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
If social media is a core part of our social, cultural, even economic worlds it raises the question of what things have changed and/or are changing because of social media?
While there are many forms of social media the platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the three key sites dominating the social media world. In comparison to Facebook and Twitter, Instagram remains the platform that users generally tend to spend more time on (Sheldon & Bryant, 2016; Pittman, 2015 as cited by Dumas, Maxwell-Smith, Davis & Giulietti, 2017).
Since its launch in 2010, the photo sharing platform, Instagram, has become the world’s fastest growing social media platform, with over 500 million users active monthly, and 300 million daily (Dumas et al., 2017).
With so many people engaging with the platform, the site has become a perfect space for companies and brands to not only target consumers and collect and analyse data about them, but is also a platform to encourage consumers themselves to produce marketing-like posts.
With this encouragement we are also seeing changes in what we nowadays consider to be celebrity, with the rise of the ‘Instafamous’ pages.
We can see these kinds of changes as an extension of our current Western neoliberal capitalist context, where being a successful individual and performing that success is important.
How did Instagram begin?
Instagram was launched in 2010 by founder Kevin Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger. The pair met at Stanford University’s Mayfield Fellow program, created to educate students about the do’s and don’ts or start-ups.
The platform was initially created by Systrom as a location-based photo sharing service called Burbn. After Systrom and Krieger partnered up they decided to change the features of the platform, focusing solely on the image sharing and editing aspect and renaming it Instagram.
Systrom says the reason for creating the app was to allow users to not only just share their photos, but to share their life when they are “on the go”. And indeed for many users Instagram ‘acts as a kind of virtual photo album’ (Sheldon & Bryant, 2016, p. 94).
Within the first twenty-four hours of the app’s launch alone over 25,000 people had downloaded it, crashing Instagram’s servers. After just one month it had already acquired over one million users.
Its success can be attributed to the mass appeal it has in the ways that it allows its users to edit their images with built-in filters and photo-editing tools, offering different photo sharing features than that of Facebook.
Instagram differs from sites like Facebook and Twitter in that it is more based on the creation, promotion and up keeping of identity as opposed to establishing connections and sustaining relationships (Dumas et al., 2017; Marcus, 2015, as cited by Sheldon & Bryant, 2016).
What does Instagram’s business model look like?
With its rapid growth and increasing popularity, Instagram soon became an obvious competitor to Mark Zuckerberg’s platform Facebook, and it wasn’t long before Zuckerburg acquired his competition by purchasing Instagram for $1 billion in 2012.
This was an incredibly ingenious move by Zuckerburg, as the platform is now worth over $100 billion. This is can be attributed to the fact that Instagram makes massive amounts of money through advertisements.
In 2014 ‘revenue generated from advertisements on Instagram reached $2.81bn – greater than both Twitter and Google in the US’ (Vizard, 2015, as cited by Djafarova & Rushworth, 2017, p. 1). Fast forward to 2018 and it is estimated that over the next year this figure will jump to over $10 billion.
Evidently Instagram is more than just a fun photo-sharing website, it is a serious corporation with real economic and socio-cultural power.
What is unique about Instagram’s interface is that whilst on other platforms advertisements are mostly separated from user content and appear in one’s newsfeed or sidebar, on Instagram many users themselves are promoting products through their own posts.
Hence, we are seeing changes in the way of what marketing looks like, as companies are paying attention to the mass traction of Instagram, by encouraging users to use the platform to share what they have bought or where they have gone, and are even paying users to post about certain products (Djafarova & Rushworth, 2017, p. 2).
Instagram’s ‘emerging paid advertising model is one that aims to enhance the native activities already developed by brands’ (Carah & Shaul, 2016, p. 70)
The app is not only changing up what is considered to be traditional marketing, but is also enabling ‘market relations to form through everyday life and cultural space around the production and circulation of images’ (Carah & Shaul, 2016, p. 71).
Suddenly what was once just a photo of someone in a dress at a bar is now ‘part of the promotional apparatus of the brand’ (Carah & Shaul, 2016, p. 71).
What is Instagram’s place in industry?
The increased presence and usage of social media over the last decade or so ‘has profoundly affected many aspects of consumer behaviour and purchase decisions’ (Jones et al., 2015; Labrecque et al., 2013; Mangold & Faulds, 2009, as cited by Virtanen, Bjork & Sjostrom, 2017, p. 470).
This fact has not been overlooked by Instagram as it promotes itself as a platform that helps grow and promote business, and this is evident in their partnership with various communications management companies. For a fee these communications companies can ‘help you unlock … potential for your business’ (Instagram, 2018, emphasis added).
As a result of social media, and sites like Instagram, we have seen a shift in the landscape of modern business and marketing as ‘social media is being increasingly used by corporations to get their messages across to consumers’ (Colliander & Marder 2018, p. 35).
How does Instagram run?
Instagram requires a significant number of behind-the-scenes players to ensure the app functions properly and ideally runs at optimum.
Social media platforms have “tech stacks”, which is where a “stack” of different servers, developers and operating systems are used by a company to create and run an Internet platform.
The high upload rates and usage of Instagram entails that the app needs a variety of operating systems to allow it to perform.
Instagram’s interconnected web of connections.
How has Instagram transformed our world?
Transforming businesses’ marketing strategies
Capitalism and the market driven nature of the West sees that for most of us when we go online are inundated with all endless amounts of online content. This means that for business and websites they have to do their best to capture and secure our attention.
This is because we live in what Havalais (2013) calls an ‘attention economy’, where our time and engagement, and the information it provides to companies and websites, is worth some serious revenue.
Hence, operating under such a context where our knowledge is so valuable, means that businesses must adopt strategic tactics which work to grab consumers’ attention.
Instagram’s integrated presence across many of our social worlds has meant that for many companies social media has come to ‘present a novel challenge for brands and they must adapt their practices to keep up’ (Colliander & Marder 2018, p. 34, emphasis added).
Instagram’s interface and architecture in combination with ‘strategies and tools for companies to interact with their customers and facilitate co-creation ’ (Virtanen et al., 2017, p. 468).
Not only do we see brands integrated into our news feeds, but we are also seeing the increase of co-creation practices, where users themselves are ‘co-creating marketing content with companies and their brands’ (Virtanen et al., 2017, p. 468).
These co-creation practices are also incredibly simple; all one needs to do it take a photograph or video with a product or at a place and hashtag it. The hashtag then ends up in a searchable collection of images and/or videos with the same hashtag.
Hashtagging not only promotes a brand or product, it also produces algorithms which enable companies to ‘make judgements about cultural life’ (Banet-Weiser, 2012; Hallinan and Stiphas, 2014; McStay, 2013, as cited by Carah & Angus 2018, p. 180).
Tagging content also provides companies with insight about trending patterns of circulation. This is not only what is trending at a given moment, but also how it is trending. In other words, which posts are getting traction and why on visual platforms like Instagram.
Instagram users becoming marketing tools
There is big money to be made through Instagram ads by influential users, who have a large amount of followers, as a part of their appeal lies in their ability to be ‘perceived to be more authentic and accessible’ than “traditional” celebrities (Wiley 2014, as cited by Djafarova & Rushworth, 2017, p. 3).
A key example of this is ‘Insta-models’. These are users who post content mostly of themselves, gaining a large following over time, and as a result have financially benefitted from it.
A local example is Sydney based Insta-model Jade Tuncdoruk, who has over 300,000 followers, and works regularly with brands to promote and market their goods and services. The result of her online success has lead to her landing a gig at this year’s Sydney Fashion Week and to be the new face of Neutrogena Australia.
The influence of Instagram’s advertising potential has even lead to recent legislative changes whereby those users who are posting content which has been paid for or sponsored by a company must now use the #ad and/or disclose that it is a ‘paid partnership’. This is to promote transparency so that followers know if another user is getting paid to promote a certain product or service.
To understand these changes requires that we understand them in context of our current neoliberal political economic moment where ‘the neoliberal ideology of individualism … encourages the development of calculated strategies of self-branding’ (Liu & Suh, 2017, p. 14).
Using the example of Tuncdork, those who do become Insta-models are often those who reflect normative performances of gender and beauty. Hence, existing hierarchies and structures of power, which reward and privilege those who adhere to normative expressions of gender, are reasserted online (Liu & Suh, 2017).
This curated self becomes ‘a salable commodity to attract attention and acquire cultural and monetary value through social media platforms’ (Liu & Suh 2017, p. 13).
Thus, the social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) of hegemonic beauty and normativity continues to function online, reaffirmed through popular Instagram feeds like Tuncdork’s, which endorse a specific form of lifestyle, often hard to achieve.
It’s a wonder then that Instagram has been found as being the worst social media platform for mental health, for the kinds of aspirational content we are coming into contact with so frequently, leaving many to feel their own lives and social identities are lacking.
Where are things headed?
It is clear that Instagram is changing our social and economic worlds through the cultural value and power it wields.
With social media permeating much of our lives, and functioning as a normal mode of communication, it has now meant that companies, organisations and businesses are presented with new pressures and challenges to see that they keep up with technological advancements.
Our social landscape is also changing as a result of Instagram and its ability to produce ‘Insta-famous’ users who attract serious social attention, and who are useful commodities for brands to work with.
This brand culture permeating much of Instagram doesn’t appear to be something that will be fading away either. In September Instagram, like Facebook Marketplace, has introduced a shopping tab. This tab provides users with a new feed, connected to the ‘Explore’ page, filled with products to browse and purchase.
Hence, social media is changing too, no longer are platforms just about connecting people and sharing photos, but are strategic marketplaces for companies and brands to surveil consumers, market their products and promote their brands.
Word count: 2035
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