Instagram, life put through filters

Article  by  Karin DANJAUME  •  Published 26.09.2013  •  Updated 26.09.2013
The last decade between 2000 and 2010 stood out for the rapid expansion of social networks; and the last two years have seen a dramatic rise in instant image sharing. Instagram has had an astounding success at this game, managing to carve itself the lion’s share of the market in record time.


Meteoric success

The original idea of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger - two young engineers (born in 1984 and 1986) who graduated from Stanford University in the United States - when they launched Instagram on 6 October 2010, was to come up with a free application for editing photos and sharing them more easily across a number of different platforms (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and e-mail addresses).

At that time, there were online photo storage websites such as Picasa and Flickr (owned by Yahoo! since 2005). The latter of these enjoyed tremendous success among semi-professionals. For mobile telephones, there are photo sharing applications such as Hipstamatic (launched by Apple) which has achieved a certain level of prominence, but which is not particularly easy to use. It is precisely the simplicity and the speed of Instagram, however, which have met with success. The application, only available for iOS[+] NoteThe operating system of Apple. The success of Instagram during the first months could be put down to iPhone users.X [1], outwitted its competitors by making use of techniques used by professionals.
The application would be worth nothing without its 19 filters[+] NoteIn July 2013.X [2] that solved the problem of poor quality photos taken quickly. A blurred image suddenly takes on a vintage or arty look. This makes a lot of people feel like talented photographers.

The success was immediate. In December 2010, Instagram already had a million users. In August 2011, 150 million photos were uploaded to the platform.  In three months, Instagram already had a million users.  In December 2011, Apple declared it the “iPhone App of the Year”. In April 2012, the application was also made available for Android devices, which enabled it to continue its climb at the same rate. In July 2013, Instagram claimed to have 130 million active users, 45 million photos published every day and 16 billion photos shared since it was launched[+] NoteSource: Instagram.X [3].

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A new form of communication

The success of Instagram is totally connected with the take-off of smartphones and the new usages that they bring. In the first quarter of 2013, over 216 million were sold in the world. The generation of digital natives, mad about social networks, is imposing a new form of expression based on messaging that is both instantaneous and visual. In 2013, over 80% of smartphone users took photos with their mobile. Photos are suddenly replacing electronic messages and SMS to say “Here I am”. Little by little, every moment of our day is being shared: breakfast, a recent purchase of a fashion item, an exhibition we just visited, a holiday by the sea… These images are of course filtered, but paradoxically the details of our private lives are being shown in great detail and without a filter. The flipside of constantly flaunting our lives is a sort of aesthetic uniformisation, which doesn’t escape being standardised. As we seek this form of aesthetic expression, our daily lives take on a kind of story-telling aspect, which can sometimes lead to some excesses. Some restaurants in New York, angry at seeing their clients getting out their smartphones all over the place (the phenomenon even has its own name: foodstagram) have forbidden the use of Instagram in their establishments.
The rapid success of Instagram and this constant switching from one social network to another have sped up the rate at which new habits are entering out lives. The vocabulary is changing (to instagram has entered users’ vocabulary), hashtags have become a new verbal tic, and lolcats are invading the social networks… Gradually, these new uses are being adopted professionally: Barack Obama, after Twitter, used Instagram for his presidential campaign, the New York Times published an Instagram photo on its front page, and celebrities are using it to promote themselves with great eagerness (Rihanna, Madonna). Instagram is no longer just a leisure setting: being part of it means controlling one’s image.

Finally, the strength of Instagram stems from the creation of a very active community. At first, it was merely a platform for sharing photos with strangers, but in the meantime, the application has become a powerful network with its own codes (the relative absence of politics, a public display of optimism at all times, no head-on criticism, etc.) and virtual or real friendships are increasing; we like others’ photos, comment on and even get involved in events.

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The buyout by Facebook

In August 2012, the little world of Instagram started to shake: the company announced that it was to be bought out by Facebook for a billion dollars. Until then, Instagram users were rather proud of being involved in an independent network with an element of creativity, and especially of having resisted the omnipresence of Facebook. And there they are caught by this network that nobody seems to be able to run away from.  Facebook is the largest images database in the world.  The purchase of Instagram by Facebook produced scepticism on the part of observers: why did this corporate giant, Facebook, spend a billion dollars to acquire a start-up, which had admittedly achieved some success, but that did not yet have an economic model? Because mobility was the weak point of Facebook: most items (music, video links etc.) are shared from a computer and it was struggling to bring in revenue from its mobile business. Despite Instagram’s performing well, Facebook hosts 70 times more photos than this application, which makes it the largest image bank in the world (200 million photos are uploaded every day). Given this situation, Facebook deemed it more than necessary to capitalise on this so that it could reach (even get inside) users’ mobile telephones. It is worth mentioning in passing that this move is an opportunity for Facebook to rid itself of the somewhat uncool image of the network that is having difficulty attracting younger users – a matter to be nonetheless taken seriously.

For Instagram, the sum of one billion dollars should be enough to explain the transaction. The platform was certainly working very well, but it didn’t yet have an economic model, and even more importantly, it was not invulnerable from being overtaken by a new application that might knock it from its prominent position[+] NoteThe success of Vine, the video application launched a few months later, indeed proved that users can be both fickle and impulsive in their choices, and that the creators of Instagram had anticipated this natural cycle.X [4]. With this purchase, the success story (one among many) of this little application bought out by the Internet giant is underway. This constitutes further proof that Facebook made a good deal: Twitter came a cropper when it offered a sum much lower than that offered by Mark Zuckerberg. The managers of Twitter showed little enthusiasm for commenting on this matter, but they didn’t wait long before retaliating by launching a range of internal filters for mobile applications and in blocking the viewing of photos from Instagram in its news threads on the micro-blogging site.
IGers (nickname given to the users of Instagram) were also far from unanimous in supporting the buyout by Facebook. Many users, very angry about the domination of Palo Alto’s company over the sector, and particularly incensed about the lack of effort to protect users’ private lives, called for a boycott and for users to switch to other networks. The malaise was maintained by the lack of clarity surrounding the new general conditions of use (GCU) issued when the buyout took place, suggesting that Facebook could claim the right to sell photos published on Instagram. Users were so up in arms that Kevin Systrom had to backtrack and publish a statement to clarify the situation on the company’s blog  insisting on the independence of this start-up. Was this an awful strategic mistake or a test of the reaction of users? In any case this mini-scandal left its mark since, according to AppStats, almost half of active users left[+] NoteThese figures have never been confirmed by Instagram. X [5].
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The competition strikes back

The buyout of Instagram by Facebook, by angering users, gave a few photo sharing applications (such as Starmatic and Snapseed) an opportunity to experience their hour of fame and glory, but more than that it provoked a reaction from an entire sector on the use of photos on social networks. Suddenly, the potential of image sharing started to be taken for granted and represented a new challenge for those involved in the digital business. The battle for Instagram had of course been lost, but some good cards remained to be played for the competitors of Facebook.

Paradoxically, it was not mobile applications that got moving, but rather websites. Pinterest, which was launched in 2010, but which truly exploded in 2012, decided to take advantage of its particular feature (mood boards, virtual boards where you can pin up your moods). This feature is already attracting brands, and the company is aiming at getting sponsored content. Once we realise that Pinterest and Instagram are prescribers in the purchase, we can see the logic behind the strategy in the race for monetisation. In the meantime, Pinterest didn’t wait for the success of Instagram to move to the mobile market; it’s versions for tablets and smartphones now generate the majority of their audience.
Another Internet giant is determined not to miss the image-sharing boat: Yahoo!. Immediately after the appointment of Marissa Meyer at the head of the company, some big announcements were made. Yahoo! decided to once more concentrate on developing Flickr. While Instagram focused on uploading images instantaneously and storing them in low definition, Flickr pampered to fans of artistic photography: images stored in high definition and a mobile application so they could be consulted anywhere. At the same time, Yahoo! bought out Tumblr for 1.1 billion dollars in May 2013, probably a symbolic amount to send a strong message to its competitors. The company is now generating income again (13 million dollars in 2012), but the platform hosts 105 million blogs. What’s more, Tumblr had started to monetise its mobile applications a few months before the buyout, with the arrival of advertising.
Finally, one of the pure player applications for mobiles has done well: Snapchat, which publishes ephemeral photos and videos (they are destroyed after a few seconds). It attracts the 13 to 25 age group and experienced phenomenal growth in 2012 and raised funds to boot. This was the response to the Facebook system: there is no trace and no disastrous consequences for the private life even if this “cool attitude” it lays claim to may be hampered by Mark Zuckerberg who was already taking an increasing interest is this serious competitor to Instagram.
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The era of social video

The battle between Facebook and Twitter has not stopped escalating since the buyout of Instagram. The micro-blogging website of course quickly reacted by inserting filters for the publication of photos on its mobile version and by breaking ties with Instagram (see section “The buyout by Facebook”), but the biggest retaliation came in January 2013 when Twitter launched its own mobile sharing application, Vine. It was an immediate success (243,000 videos shared in a week via Vine) which re-awoke the war between these two corporate giants: Facebook immediately blocked the upload of Vine videos to its users’ walls. But Vine was simply confirming the start of trend: image sharing also covers animated images. And as for Instagram and the other photo applications, there is not enough room for everybody. During the initial months after its launch, Vine found its public and they went crazy for it. Once more, the machine got going and Vine became a promotion tool. Teasers for blockbusters such as Wolverine and for video games are unveiled as a preview on Vine. Social video had become trendy.

The comeback wasn’t long in coming: on 20 June 2013, Instagram announced that it was adding video to its services. Now, in addition to the photos of members of the network they are subscribed to, Igers can now view videos lasting up to 15 seconds. They also have access to filters that visually enhance their videos. In a few days, Vine fell from 2nd to 7th place in the Apple AppStore. When Instagram added the “embed” function for its videos in 2013, it appeared for a moment to have floored its competitor. But for how long?

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Questions on the future of monetisation

Instagram keeps bringing in innovations such as adding video, mapping (geolocation) to profiles, enriching the content of its website, or photo tagging. It used to be centred on itself, but now the application is increasing the ways in which content can be shared and viewed. In its wake, many companies are taking advantage of the Instagram effect, such as, which gives detailed statistics, adding sponsored photos or websites and applications that print magnets, cushions, and photos in Polaroid format. The samegoes for applications (sometimes for a fee) that offer tools to customise photos by adding text, frames and little logos. For the time being, these are mainly applications and websites by third parties that are benefiting financially from the success of Instagram (the buyout by Facebook aside). In 2014, a dedicated camera developed by Polaroid should also come on the market (the Socialmatic), but Instagram will not necessarily be involved in the project.
The managers of Instagram don’t seem to be in hurry to become involved in the huge market of derivative products that the application brought about. The social network nonetheless decided to put an end to questions about the worst aspects. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on 8 September 2013, Emily White, the director of operations of Instagram[+] NoteShe started at Instagram in March 2013, coming from Facebook and before that from Google.X [6] reassured us that “we [the social network] want to make money in the long term, but we don't have any short-term pressure.” Despite everything, it has been announced that advertising will be placed on the network in 2014, probably so it will have enough time to put in place the appropriate tools and to refine its public relations message, to avoid upsetting users again.
Whatever the case may be, it won’t stop Kevin Systrom, its co-creator, from thinking big while using a little irony: in July 2013, he declared that if it continues in the same way, its application could become bigger than Facebook.

Translated from the French by Peter Moss

Photo credits:
- Logo steam: Instagram
- Promotional images: Instagram
- Screen shot / Karin Danjaume
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  • 1. The operating system of Apple. The success of Instagram during the first months could be put down to iPhone users.
  • 2. In July 2013.
  • 3. Source: Instagram.
  • 4. The success of Vine, the video application launched a few months later, indeed proved that users can be both fickle and impulsive in their choices, and that the creators of Instagram had anticipated this natural cycle.
  • 5. These figures have never been confirmed by Instagram.
  • 6. She started at Instagram in March 2013, coming from Facebook and before that from Google.
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