Prior to the year of 2010, Valencia was a mere Spanish city and Facebook photo albums were at their prime. When Kevin Systrom uploaded a photo of his dog captioned ‘test’, to the then-inactive platform, little did he know it would take the world by storm. In following 8 years, society has participated Systrom’s vision of the creating and sharing of beauty in the mundane through the art of photography known as Instagram.
In a number of key ways, Instagram has demonstrated its power to shape society into one that is increasingly polished and visual, yet personal and story-focused. It adds a new glossiness to the personality which Facebook elicits, and can be integrated within a networked identity of other platforms. Instagram as a platform is very much a double-edged sword, with ideal use cases, but also with problematic realities.
Instagram’s immense influence over the way we operate as a technological society demonstrates its power to reimagine the internet. The internet can be imagined in so many ways, as an information highway, or a cyberspace. Instagram’s rise however has contributed to the growing logic of branded consumption, and branding of the self. It becomes particularly interesting when companies and celebrities are integrated into this realm, and when they adopt behaviours of the ‘regular user’ to assimilate their product or service within the digital market.
In a political context, Instagram has played the role of a promotional tool, in a unique way of candidate-propaganda and assimilation with the public for campaign purposes. On the other hand, it has also been the subject of political discourse in the way that national governments censor ‘objectionable’ content. In an economic context, Instagram has played the role of a promotional tool for brands and services. On the other hand, it has also been economically questioned for enabling labour exploitation of influencers and product promoters, and the exploitation of user-generated content for profitable third-party uses. In a socio-cultural setting, Instagram has enabled sub-cultures to flourish and communities to connect, however in other instances has the capacity to alienate and pressure users who aim to embody platformed ideals in the process of branded identity construction.
Background and Infographic
Instagram was founded in 2010 by Stanford graduates Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. The first post on Instagram occurred in July. Going live in October of that year, the platform only had an initial 80 users (Fell, 2012). By December of that year, Instagram announced a full photo support on FourSquare and had amassed 1 million registered users. A year after the first posted photo, of July 2011, 6 million registered users had followed. Instagram grew at a rapid rate, and was attemptedly purchased by Facebook in April of 2012 (Fell, 2012).
After a failed business deal, Facebook began to copy the ‘filter’ effect to photo posting that was iconic to Instagram (Kishundat, 2018). A year later, Facebook successfully executed this deal, purchasing Instagram for 1 billion US dollars in cash and stock, despite the app having no official revenue. In 2013, advertisements and photo-tagging were introduced by Facebook into Instagram, which offered a new avenue for businesss to execute revenue (Kishundat, 2018).
Today, after a number of advancements under the Zuckerberg ownership, Instagram is home to 800 million monthly active users, 500 million of which are active daily (Kishundat, 2018). Headquartered in San Francisco, California under the CEO leadership of Adam Mosseri, Instagram has an estimated annual revenue of US$3.2billion (Owler.com, 2018). This platform has achieved an undeniable market place and cult status in its users, from a mere 80 users just 8 years prior.
Beyond its obvious cultural implications, Instagram has been a part of political discussion due to its prevalence in society and ability to circulate visual information so quickly in the public sphere. This can be seen in the instance of political elections as well as national governance.
In the past few years, with increases in technological developments, social media has played a crucial role in information circulation for political campaigns. Savvy politicians are now employing social media public relations teams, to target the inevitably social-media-active youth demographic (Bossetta, 2018). Rather than in a traditional propaganda sense, these politicians are executing social campaigns, particularly on Instagram in a different way. Instagram, unlike its competitors, assimilates user profiles into one stream, so that a celebrity with 100 million followers will be presented in the same way as someone with 100. This makes interaction seem more personal than on a platform such as Facebook, whereby public figures are relatively distanced.
The U.S. presidential election of 2016 exemplified this fact, with both party candidates integrating Instagram in their own way. With 300 million daily active users at the time, Instagram was rightfully the second-most used social network for campaign promotional tactics (Bossetta, 2018). For Hillary Clinton, it was the posting of personable selfies, and constructing a personal story that became her campaign strategy (Bossetta, 2018). Additionally, Clinton strategically aligned the democrat position with celebrity influencers such as avid supporter Katy Perry, featured in a number of posts, that which targeted a youth demographic in Perry’s Instagram-active fan-base.
Image Credit: @hillaryclinton at Instagram. Instagram License.
Not only this, but Instagram’s infrastructure allowed the gathering of key demographic data, whereby the platform sells user data to third party advertising services and insight agencies. With this kind of information, Instagram not only facilitated as a promotional tool for brand construction, it served as an insight into voter demographics, which allows further specialised communications.
In another global instance, Instagram functioned as tool of political storytelling for the presidential campaign of 2016 Austrian candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. The overt use of a biographical narrative as political propaganda drew public attention to the way Instagram has changed the way people view politicians and political discourse. They want to see it on their level, so that the content is relatable and not necessarily top-down.
View this post on Instagram
Welches ist Ihr Lieblingsverkehrsmittel? 🚇 Diese und andere Fragen hat das @vorbildhaft Magazin gestellt, Alexander Van der Bellen hat darauf "ohne Worte" geantwortet. 👍 _________ #interview #ohneworte #öffis #ubahn #wien #vanderbellen #bpw16 #subway #igersvienna Foto: @stefanjoham
Image Credit: @vanderbellen at Instagram. Instagram License.
Using a ‘homeland’ rhetoric as his central narrative, Van der Bellen successfully executed a holistic campaign, integrated with more overt propaganda (Liebhart & Bernhardt, 2017). Images such as him riding on the commuter subway, or the walking of his dogs in his country holiday home nurtured a sense of family and authenticity to his image. This was incorporated with the narrative of his refugee background to execute a campaign story about togetherness and belonging as the defining characteristics of a homeland, rather than geographic locale (Liebhart & Bernhardt, 2017).
On the other side of the coin, Instagram has also been the subject of governments who aim to censor content. This is particularly true for mainland China, whereby the ‘Golden Shield Project’ commonly referred to as ‘The Great Firewall of China’ seeks to limit the content that citizens can access, that which is deemed by the government as ‘objectionable’.
Up until 2014, Instagram was a widely used and growing platform in the Chinese community. In 2014 however this changed, when the instance of the Hong Kong protests led to the wide circulation of images and videos displaying police violence. Immediately following, Instagram was banned from mainland China (Hobbs & Roberts, 2017). Here we see Instagram enter the political discourse, whereby governments seek to hinder its impact, due to the way that it circumvents the top-down messages that the Chinese government strive to maintain.
Interestingly, following this ban, 53% of mainland Chinese Instagram users were still active (Hobbs & Roberts, 2017). Further, there was a rise in Virtual Private Network services, which allowed citizens to circumvent the government ban. Here, individuals took matters into their own hands to seek out the platform, and additional social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, more than ever before. The banning of Instagram hence produced an effect of ‘firewall jumping’, and the politicisation of citizens in the name of collective action (Hobbs & Roberts, 2017). For the Chinese government and citizens, Instagram has been involved in a push/pull dynamic and has changed the way we think about global governance, censorship and privacy following the events of the 2014 protests and platform ban.
Instagram has provided a number of new avenues for economic gain. From brand endorsement on individual profiles, to companies assuming their own profiles, to the profiting off user-generated data, Instagram has disturbed the once-linear business model of advertisement.
Instagram has proved extremely beneficial for brands, that can now by-pass hefty advertising costs. Since brands can assume their own profile and identity on Instagram, they can distribute advertising content with no cost for the medium of delivery (Carah & Shaul 2015). Social media represents a highly cost-effective mode of advertising for brands, with a high return and engagement. On top of this, Instagram’s recent updates allow brands to share direct links to their consumable products, whereby shopping products can now be tagged with prices (Carah & Shaul 2015). Instagram in this event resembles almost that of an online store.
Due to its architecture, companies can execute effective guerrilla marketing tactics, those which disguises the advertising intent (Carah & Shaul 2015). Through the posting of glossy and artistic content, brands can construct their identity whilst amassing a follower base, without necessarily needing to sell something, so that the brand becomes top-of-mind and desirable in consumerist settings.
In a more contemporary circumstance, companies are integrating the use of sponsored celebrity endorsements as part of their advertising budgets. More specifically, the use of Instagram social ‘influencers’ allow brands to plug their products in a way that is digestible for the general public (Duffy, 2018). That is, in the narrative of daily life for popular Instagram users, such as Queensland mother and Women’s Best sponsor Tammy Hembrow.
Image Credit: @tammyhembrow, at Instagram. Instagram License.
Rather than resembling a direct billboard messaging, this advertisement for Women’s Best protein bars assumes a personable identity, one that Tammy Hembrow’s followers will be more willing to trust and consume, due to the authenticity she has constructed through her profile and the way that she represents an ‘objective’ trustworthy source (Duffy, 2018).
On the other side of the coin, Instagram has come under fire in discussions of fair-labour. Whilst it is not the direct fault of the platform itself, Instagram has enabled citizens to embody the role of brand ambassadors, even when not requested, to execute a process of free labour through promotion of products.
In more extreme cases, the Instagram-monetization model has come under fire when companies do not adequately compensate their endorsers. A common payment model requires influencers to reach a threshold of revenue for their posting, to receive any sort of compensation, which means barriers to success are high. It was found that only 15% of Instagram bloggers receive revenue from promoting products (Duffy, 2018), meaning the business of blogging is one that is rife with unfair economic standards.
Instagram has added a whole new meaning to the shaping of online identity and society at large. Whilst photo-sharing was very much a core element of Facebook and other networks, the advent of this new social network gave rise to the notion of the ‘amateur’, whereby photo-editing tools and filters made the art of photography accessible to anyone with an iPhone (Gardner & Davis, 2013).
Since then, its Facebook acquisition as well as technological developments of the iPhone and Android have allowed the advancement of the platform into one of the world’s leading social networks. Beyond the art of posting photos, Instagram stands for the circulation of culture in the millennial era, and interplays with wider systems of politics, economics and society.
The introduction of Instagram has undoubtedly groomed youth demographic behaviours. Where social media is a crucial part of social identity, individuals are necessitated to construct their branded image within the architecture of these platforms.
For Instagram’s case, the logic of a glossy and artistic personal presentation overrides a necessity for other personality elements, which has been proven to lead to angst in Instagram users (Gardner & Davis, 2013). This logic contributes to a visual and superficial culture at large, and to think of individuals as branded products, in an age where individualism and self-expression are at its peak. This pressure can have a damaging effect overall on individuals, but can also contribute to feelings of self-actualisation and positive identity formation (Gardner & Davis, 2013).
Overall, Instagram has undoubtedly changed the way we think about society. Due to the way that it has so pervasively affected daily activities, every act of individuals, every economic decision in companies and every message from politicians is affected by the world which Instagram has created. It is a world where the circulation of information is more rapid, vivid and engaging than ever, whereby all actors can assume a very similar role in the playing field that is the app of Instagram. Whilst in political, economic and social settings Instagram has proved a problematic enterprise, it has been undeniable in bringing the world closer together through the common interest of self-expression and artistry.
Bossetta, M. (2018). The Digital Architectures of Social Media: Comparing Political Campaigning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the 2016 U.S. Election. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 95(2), 471-496.
Carah, N., & Shaul, M. (2015). Brands and Instagram: Point, tap, swipe, glance. Mobile Media & Communication, 4(1), 69-84.
Duffy, B. E. (2018). “And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor”: Attracting Advertisers, Building Brands, Leveraging (Free) Labor. Yale University Press, 136-184.
Fell, J. (2012). How Instagram Went From Idea to $1 Billion in Less Than Two Years. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/223310
Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2013). Personal Identity in the Age of the App. In The App Generation (pp. 60-91). Yale University Press.
Hobbs, W. R., & Roberts, M. (2017). How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information. SSRN Electronic Journal, 621-636.
Kishundat, A. (2018). A Brief History of Instagram and Its Rise to Fame. Retrieved from https://candybitsocial.com/news/history-of-instagram
Liebhart, K., & Bernhardt, P. (2017). Political Storytelling on Instagram: Key Aspects of Alexander Van der Bellen’s Successful 2016 Presidential Election Campaign. Media and Communication, 5(4), 15-25.
Owler.com. (2018). Instagram Competitors, Revenue and Employees – Owler Company Profile. Retrieved from https://www.owler.com/company/instagram