Decoding the Success and Uses of Instagram

Vincent Larach

Instagram_Icon_LargeThe photograph has become an integral part of our lives. It is so deeply embedded in the way we capture moments in time and share information that we barely notice the medium that we employ to do so much. An emerging star in online digital culture and photography sharing is Instagram. While it is only one among the thousands of available mobile applications for smartphones, it is unique in its meteoric rise in popularity and its use in popular culture. In fact, there are over 75 million active users everyday on a service that is mobile-only and was launched only three years ago. What are the technical elements upon which this application is built? What meaning-making tools does it offer the user? Is there anything unique in the way people use it as opposed to other internet photography services? These are all questions that need to be examined. I argue that the combination of technical affordances is nothing revolutionary, however the combination of these technical affordances in addition to social and cultural forces have made instagram a hub for the performative expression of emotion, immediacy, and identity through mobile photography.

What is Instagram?

Instagram 4.0 - 00 FeedInstagram is a mobile application that was launched on the Apple App Store on October 6, 2010. On the heels of the success of Facebook and Twitter, Instagram found its success in isolating one core function: instant photo editing and sharing. While both Twitter and Facebook included photo sharing functionalities, they were always secondary or even tertiary functions to the text-based function of status updates. Instagram used pre-existing technology to change the focus from text-based status updates to vibrant, image-centered updates. It adopted the idea of the unending activity stream from other social media services, and made images the center of the service. Perhaps it is this simplicity of function that propelled it to success. In its first three months, the service grew to support over one million users, and after it’s first year, the service multiplied its users to 10 million. Today, the service has 150 million active monthly users and 75 million active daily users.

The Black Box of Instagram

The Instagram app, with it’s square icon and rounded corners, that engineers agonized over for hours, has become yet another app in a sea of icons that flood the home screen of smartphone users. While this product seems completely normal and even natural in our society of mobile apps, we often forget the large amount of  technology and previous history that this app relies on. The app itself has become a black-box where consumers only focus on the productized implementation of technologies, instead of the long and intertwined histories that have allowed for their existence. Darryl Cressman describes the idea of the black box when he says, “A black box could be a computer, a car, a television or any other technical object that operates as it should. When this occurs, the complex sociotechnical relationships that constitute it are rendered invisible, or black-boxed” (6). What end users see as a playfully-designed icon on their smartphone really contains, “a variety of political, social and economic elements as well as science, engineering, and the particular histories of these practices” (Cressman 9). In order to understand how instagram is employed by its users, it is vital to understand the technologies that it relies on and has combined. While a list of all of the technologies that have been combined to form instagram would be seemingly unending, it is helpful to highlight a few such as photography, computing and the internet. Instagram itself points out that its motto is to “Keep it very simple, don’t re-invent the wheel, and go with proven and solid technologies when you can.”

Instagram 4.0 - 01 CameraThe first and most central technology of the Instagram experience is the camera. Today’s user that attends a friend’s birthday party and casually snaps some pictures at the event, does not realize the complex, international process that resulted in being able to capture images. Development of the camera ranged from the invention of the camera obscura to the complex chemical experiments and substrates that were used in the process of capturing light. The development of photography was not the result of merely one scientist in one country or cultural context. The development of photography spanned decades and included work by Thomas Wedgwood to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France (Hirsch). The refinement, miniaturization and digitalization of photography is a process that would span more than a century to the point where it is normal to have cameras embedded in to telephones, tablets, and even eyeglasses.

A second fundamental technology that Instagram relies on is the computing power of the smartphone on which it runs. While computers and mainframes once occupied entire rooms, the system-on-a-chip processors that currently power smartphones are now only the size of a fingernail. Instagram uses the computing power available in smartphones to store pictures and digitally enhance, crop, rotate, and apply filters. Lee Manovich describes some of the other possibilities of computational power when saying, “a digital photograph can be quickly modified in numerous ways and equally quickly combined with other images; instantly moved around the world and shared with other people; and inserted into a multimedia document, or an architectural 3D design. Furthermore, we can automatically (i.e., by running the appropriate algorithms) improve its contrast, make it sharper, and even in some situations remove blur” (1215). Additionally, the ability to view the photos taken on screens that are capable of displaying high-resolution images was critical to the app’s success. The New York Times highlighted the Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at Saturday, December 14, 2013  2.31.31 PMimportance of the hardware technology when saying, “The release of the iPhone 4 gave them a perfect hook: it had a high-performing camera and could display higher-resolution images. Users could take a picture, tweak it, write a caption and send it out to the world.” Apple’s commercialization of a highly pixel dense screen, which they branded “retina,” would be a key precursor for making image sharing popular on mobile devices.

While the camera and the computing power of the smartphone are crucial elements of the app, the technology that really propels it into the future and makes it different than a standalone camera is the internet. Since the app is only available for mobile devices and the core function is photo sharing, it relies on cellular data networks and wifi connections. The availability of these networks to share information relies on the government regulation and licensing of the electromagnetic spectrum, and private commercial companies who provide internet connectivity services. What makes Instagram even more reliant on the internet is its infrastructure. Not only does it rely on an internet connection to allow users to share photos, it also employs a cloud computing architecture, rented from Amazon, for storage and computing power. According to Bloomberg Buisnessweek Magazine, “Amazon Web Services makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card to access the same kind of world-class computing systems that Amazon uses to run its $34 billion-a-year retail operation.” All of the functions of Instagram that are enabled by these technologies create a series of affordances. Gibson defines affordances by saying, “affordances provided by the environment are what it offers, what it provides, what it furnishes, and what it invites” (Zhang and Patel 336). The functions that Instagram provides and furnishes are instant photo editing and sharing with a community. It invites the user to spontaneously share their experiences and emotions through the use of photographs.

While the technical elements and affordances upon which Instagram is built are fascinating to deconstruct and analyze, they are hardly revolutionary. In fact, Instagram is merely a combinatorial and productized piece of software code which harnesses the power of previous technologies. Why, then, is it worthy of such scrutiny and critical study? Lee Manovich discusses this question when saying, “Why should humanists, social scientists, media scholars, and cultural critics care about software? Because outside of certain cultural areas such as crafts and fine art, software has replaced a diverse array of physical, mechanical, and electronic technologies used before the twenty-first century to create, store, distribute and access cultural artifacts” (147). The creation, storage, and distribution of the cultural artifacts in Instagram revolves around images.

Social and Cultural Context

In addition to the technology that makes Instagram possible, the social, cultural, and temporal context into which the app was developed and introduced must also be considered. One crucial element to be considered is the way in which people have been socialized to communicate over time and space. The telegram was the first technology that essentially collapsed the physical and spatial barriers to information transmission. Instagram appropriately includes a portion of the word telegram in its name. This subtle reference of a historical communication technology is a reminder of the fact that it is employing a function that has been around for decades. That is, starting with the telegraph, people have become accustomed to instant information transmission. While the technology of the telegram, with its Morse Code system of symbols, is a far cry from the ones and zeros that now transfer high resolution images, the idea of instant information transmission and the culture that it created laid an important foundation for today’s mobile apps. The addition of the prefix ‘insta’ before the shortened reference to the telegram further implies the immediacy in which the software is meant to be used. In the interface of the application, the function of publishing a picture is governed by a set of software steps that a user must accomplish. When the camera button is selected from the bottom menu, the user is immediately presented with a  viewfinder from which to snap a photo. The option to select a previously taken photo that is stored on the phone is clearly secondary and is hidden in the interface with a camera-roll symbol. The next step of the interface is what guides the user to add a filter with a single tap. Finally, the interface offers a Instagram 4.0 - 03 Editplethora of sharing options not only within the instagram community itself but also through other social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter, email, Tumblr, Flickr or Foursqure.  The creators of the application clearly created an interface that encourages spontaneous photo taking, editing, and sharing through a bevy of channels. The ease to which the interface allows for frictionless photo sharing is a key consideration when analyzing how these photos may be interpreted.

While the functions of the interface may seem arbitrary and unimportant, they actually serve as a guide for how the app is used. Manovich highlights the importance of, “how software appears to users—i.e. what functions it offers to create, share, reuse, mix, create, manage, share and communicate content, the interfaces used to present these functions, and assumptions and models about a user, her/his needs, and society encoded in these functions and their interface design” (567). Conscious of the function of the app, people then may take away different meanings from an image published to first Instagram than if it was published first to Facebook or Flickr. Instagram photos imply some sort of immediacy. They suggest a collapsed time between when the photo was taken and when it was shared.

In addition to the immediacy implied by the Instagram photo, there are other meanings that are encoded into photographs. Stuart Hall, in his description of message and information transmission said, “Before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use’, it must first be appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded. It is this set of decoded meanings which ‘have an effect’, influence, entertain, instruct or persuade, with very complex perceptual, cognitive, emotional, ideological or behavioural consequences. In a ‘determinate’ moment the structure employs a code and yields a ‘message’: at another determinate moment the ‘message’, via its decodings, issues into the structure of social practices” (509). The coding and decoding of the meaning and significance of the pictures shared over Instagram is governed by the same rules of communication and message transfer that Hall described. That is, in each picture that is shared, there a set of meanings that must be decoded. People do not share photos on Instagram arbitrarily. Instead, through the composition of the photo and the filters added, people are creating a message that depends on socially embedded codes and relies on recognizable elements.

imageInstagram relies on a culture and society that has become image-centric. It is a society that can recognize a whole host of visual cues in order to decode both intended and unintended information and meaning. Bordieu examines the cult of photography within society and he says, “the range of that which suggests itself as really photographable for a given social class (that is, the range of ‘takable’ photographs or photographs ‘to be taken’, as opposed to the universe of realities which are objectively photographable given the technical possibilities of the camera) is defined by implicit models which may be understood via photographic practice and its product, because they objectively determine the meaning which a group offers upon the photographic act as the ontological choice of an object which is perceived as worthy of being photographed, which is captured, stored, communicated, shown and admired” (6). Bordieu is describing the codes, traditions, and customs upon which people practice photography. One of the reasons why Instagram works so well is because it relies on these instantly recognizable image cues. Users post images of family, nature, food, travels, and much more. The way the images are composed and the content that they carry rely on instantly recognizable codes. The Instagram interface is not designed for long, pensive reflection of complex works of art. Instead, the interface is one unending vertical stream of photos with a username, caption and a few comments. The images are not designed to be parsed for subtle meanings or deeply embedded emotions as if it were a painting or photograph in a curated exhibition in a museum. In fact, the user may only glance at an Instagram photo for a fraction of a second as it glides by in the unending carousel of images. The fact that the principal means of viewing these Instagram images is on a 3.5-4 inch screen, in a stream of thousands of other photos, necessarily forces users to post images characterized by instantly recognizable genres, codes, or cues.

image (1)One of the most recognizable codes of photography is the family portrait. While in the early days of photography family portraits were formal and highly orchestrated events in studios, the type of family portrait most often encountered on Instagram are casual, impulsive, and spontaneous. A simple search for the #family hashtag results in nearly 47 million posts. Other related hashtags include #familytime, #familyfirst, and #familyfun. Bordieu mentioned this ritualized and recognizable form of photography when noting, “Because the family photograph is a ritual of the domestic cult in which the family is both subject and object, because it expresses the celebratory sense which the family group gives to itself, and which reinforces by giving it expression, the need for photographs and the need to take photographs (the internalization of the social function of this practice) are felt all the more intensely the more integrated the group and the more the group is captured at a moment of its highest integration” (19).

As if the recognizable photographic codes and styles were not enough to elicit a particular emotion or feeling users have the ability to tag their photos with a hashtag beginning with the # sign. In this way, the user reinforces their use of particular codes through the use of supplemental caption text that contains easily searchable tags. Additionally, the hashtag may serve as a safeguard for images that are meant to be interpreted in a certain context, but because of their physical characteristics, they do not fully conform to the societally-established codes of certain photographic genres.

Some people say that images can speak for themselves, however upon further reflection, is there any innate property of the image itself that allows it to convey information? Are we not decoding codes and cues from the images and attributing certain societal notions as we evaluate them? The image of a smiling person would insinuate that someone is happy. Using codes like this to express emotion could be seen as a form of distributed cognition. The interplay of distributed cognition and cultural artifacts such as images is particularly notable. In fact, some have argued that, “the study of cognition is not separable from the study of culture, because agents live in complex cultural environments. This means, on the one hand, that culture emerges out of the activity of human agents in their historical contexts, as mental, material and social structures interact, and on the other hand, that culture in the form of a history of material artifacts and social practices, shapes cognitive processes, particularly cognitive processes that are distributed over agents, artifacts, and environments” (Hollan et al. 178). The social cues and codes that people consciously and unconsciously embed in their photos in order to express meaning and emotion are therefore highly dependent on cultural context. A person who shares an image in the United States would probably only intend for their image to be viewed and interpreted by other people in the U.S. The reading and interpretation of the same image in another country could cause potential confusion or misunderstanding due to the lack of shared cultural context and societal norms. There are, of course, some universal cues such as family, nature, or national identity that, although expressed in different ways, are shared by several cultures.

The use of distributed cognition can also be seen in the way that filters are used to edit and enhance photos on Instagram. Tingeing a photo in a sepia tone or making it black and white with a particular border creates no inherent and universal human meaning across the world. The reason people do this is because they are trying to call upon a particular shared cultural construct or understanding and apply it to their image. The filter, therefore, can be seen as an added layer of meaning, expressive emotion, or cultural cue. It is a form of distributed cognition because it employs a predetermined feeling and adds it as an additional layer of meaning to the photo. Making a photo black and white could be a means of evoking a “vintage” feeling or somehow coding an image as being a member of a transcendental or universal human emotion. In a similar way, adding a filter that oversaturates the colors could be a means of expressing excitement or enthusiasm. One crucial element of this discussion is the fact that the meanings evoked by adding filters are constantly in flux as society changes and creates new meanings for certain visual cues. The combination of the cultural codes embedded in a photo, in addition to the caption text, hashtags, and filters create a series of meaning-making elements that work in harmony to enable the encoding and subsequent decoding of a message. These elements work together to evoke a large amount of meaning in the relatively small amount of time that a photo is viewed in the endless stream of Instagram.

The Analog Precursor of Instagram

The Polaroid Camera

While Instagram may seem like it is introducing a new form of image capture and sharing, in reality it is merely a remediation of the classic polaroid camera photo that generations of people grew up with. Bolter and grusin describe the term remediation when saying, “In this last decade of the twentieth century, we are in an unusual position to appreciate remediation, because of the rapid development of new digital media and the nearly as rapid response by traditional media. Older electronic and print media are seeking to reaffirm their status within our culture as digital media challenge that status. Both new and old media are invoking the twin logics of immediacy and hypermediacy in their efforts to remake themselves and each other” (5). The ‘old’ media of polaroids and printed pictures are remediated in Instagram and their status within digital culture is seemingly elevated due to the fact that images are surrounded by location tags, hashtags, and user comments. The function of Instagram, however, is at its essence the same as the polaroid image. The polaroid camera provided instant photo taking, development, and the availability of a physical print. The small white space at the bottom of the image allowed for a caption or note. The physical affordance of the physical print allowed the image to be shared with others. Instagram provides all of these same affordances, yet they are packaged in a seemingly new way. That is, they are slickly designed in a mobile app and new features such as filters have been added. Essentially, however, Instagram is a digital Polaroid.

Since they share similar functions, the question of how Polaroid images were used could also shed light on how people have been socialized for image taking and sharing. This could illuminate how Instagram is used today. Peter Buse argues that the polaroid camera was the center of parties and other events (192). Additionally, he sees the act of taking a polaroid as an event in itself. He describes this when saying, “So important has the ‘event’ of instant photography been in its history that we can speak of it as a ‘photography of attractions’…for whom the spectacle of the technology is just as important as any image which results from it (192). This argument can also be applied to Instagram. It serves a similar function as being an important element of parties and other shared cultural events. In fact, the two days with the highest usage of Instagram in its history have been Thanksgiving. This year, Thanksgiving coincided with the celebration of Hanukkah, making the shared cultural event even more significant. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are shared cultural events that result in family gatherings and shared experiences. Just as the Polaroid was used at parties to document and memorialize social events, Instagram is being used to in the same manner. In Instagram’s case, an added layer of performative actions may be present as users are able to instantly share their creations with others across the internet. The idea of Instagram as a ‘photography of attractions’ is also relevant. The act of taking a picture with instagram is not only about photo composition, it also entails editing the image and applying filters. Much as the Polaroid created a shared photographic event as people waited for its instant development, Instagram creates a shared cultural event as users decide on which filters and hashtags to add in order to add additional meaning to the photo.

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at Saturday, December 14, 2013  2.46.58 PM

Instagram images of Thanksgiving

When relating Instagram with the Polaroid it becomes apparent that the use of these services at important events is one of the key use cases. The #thanksgiving hashtag contains more than five million entries and the #turkey hashtag has seven million hashtags. Similarly, the #christmas hashtag has 30 million posts. These numbers indicate that one of Instagram’s key functions is to document significant social and cultural events and participate in wider societal celebrations.

The public nature of Instagram is also worth noting. How have people become so comfortable with sharing their pictures with the entire world? While the Polaroid allowed for sharing, the physical limitations of a paper print meant that there was a limit to the publicness of the photo. Sharing on Instagram, as well as other internet services, means that there is a disconnect between the image itself and the distances over which it is shared. While there are some optional privacy settings, the Instagram platform generally allows for a more public sharing. The launch of Instagram in 2010 came at an interesting time because people were already being socialized into the normality of sharing personal moments and thoughts online. Essentially, prior services such as blogging platforms, chat rooms, and services such as Facebook and twitter laid the foundation for people to feel relatively comfortable with sharing information online. Instagram encouraged one form of public sharing through camera phones. The dichotomy between private and public is also an important consideration. Lee notes that, “As [users] continuously self-regulate the pertinence of accessibility to their images, they cultivate skills of self-impression management, caring about others’ gazes. In this process, private/public domains are interpenetrated and overlapped, challenging the conventional dichotomy of contrasting the visible public domain with the invisible private domain” (170).

All of the elements previously noted have converged to create a platform in the Instagram app that allows and encourages people to share their daily experiences. As has been shown, people use Instagram to share images of family and shared cultural events. Lee notes that, “ by using regular photographic practices, individuals transform the details of everyday life into micro-spectacles, while they appropriate public events as an object of personal photography. Their photo-taking not only discloses their personal experiences and impressions of the world, but also records ephemeral moments in their life as captured from their subjective gazes” (Lee 169). Building upon this observation, I argue that Instagram allows for the sharing of personal identity, and more specifically, the sharing of national and regional identity or belonging to a specific culture, society or nation. The combination of photographic practices around events, embedded image codes, and internet sharing practices have converged to create a platform in Instagram that allows for the visual expression of a national feeling or emotion. One example of this can be seen in the Catalan nationalist movement. Searching instagram for #catalunya results in 753,000 posts. It also highlights other popular tags which include #catalunyalliure [cataloniafree], #catalunyainependent, and #catalunyaisnotspain. Reviewing the photos that are tagged with these words reveals the employment of nationalist symbols such as flags, national colors, characteristic buildings, cultural practices, food, and landscapes. This tendency to post pictures that send a political message and express national identity is not unique to Catalonia. Searching for the hashtag #patriotic, more than 282,000 posts can be viewed that contain similar images of flags, characteristic buildings, and monuments.

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at Saturday, December 14, 2013  2.48.22 PM

Images posted to Instagram of the Catalan Way demonstration in September 2013



The success of Instagram is not unlike other startups that have used widely available technology and built upon embedded societal constructs and customs. The technology behind instagram is nothing revolutionary. It harnesses refined and miniaturized cameras, as well as computer processors and mobile networks. Additionally, it uses the internet as it’s backend storage and computing infrastructure. All of the elements that its developers have employed were previously available for anyone to use. The key to Instagram’s success was developing a mobile app with a focused and singular function: the simple editing and sharing of photographs. This function, combined with societal norms of photo-taking, public information sharing, and event documentation, all combined to make Instagram an app with 150 million users in only three years. While the app has appropriated many previous technologies and played upon existing social constructs, it is interesting to note how people are using it to express themselves and share a sense of identity. National identity has traditionally been expressed by flying a flag one’s door, wearing a pin, or attending an event. With the help of Instagram, people are now sharing photos that accomplish the same goals. While Instagram is not the only online outlet for the expression of national identity, it’s visual, event-based, and expressive nature makes it an important tool for online expression.


Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, Richard Grusin, and Richard Arthur Grusin. Remediation: Understanding new media. MIT Press, 2000.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A middle-brow art. Stanford University Press, 1996.

Buse, Peter. “The polaroid image as photo-object.” Journal of Visual Culture9.2 (2010): 189-207.

Cressman, Darryl. “A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory: Punctualization, Heterogeneous Engineering & Translation.” Paper for Simon Frasier University ACT Lab/Centre for Policy Research on Science & Technology (2009).

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/decoding.” Media and cultural studies: Keyworks(2001): 166-176.

Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the light: A history of photography. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2000.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed cognition: toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 7.2 (2000): 174-196.

Lee, Dong-Hoo. “Mobile snapshots and private/public boundaries.” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 22.3 (2009): 161-171.

Manovich, Lev. Software takes command. Bloomsbury USA Academic, 2013.

Perlroth, Somini Sengupta, Nicole, and Jenna Wortham. “Instagram Founders Were Helped by Bay Area Connections.” The New York Times13 Apr. 2012.

Vance, Ashlee. “The Cloud: Battle of the Tech Titans.” BusinessWeek: magazine 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Wortham, Jenna. “Instagram Rises as Social Web Embraces Photo Sharing.” The New York Times 3 June 2011.

Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.



Polaroid Close Up – Johan Blomström

Giving Thanks as Holidays Collide.