Instagram at 10: how sharing photos has entertained us, upset us – and changed our sense of self

The most-downloaded app of 2010 made the photographs you took on your phone look way cooler. Vintage-effect filters, artful vignettes and a square-frame layout gave your ordinary snaps a pleasingly nostalgic Polaroid appeal. But 10 years later, barely anyone remembers Hipstamatic. It was a different photo-sharing app, which launched snapping at Hipstamatic’s heels on 6 October 2010, that went on to change the world. Last month more than 1 billion people posted photos on Instagram.

You probably wouldn’t have predicted, from the co-founder of Instagram Mike Krieger’s first post, that you were witnessing the birth of a cultural and economic phenomenon. It was a shot of San Francisco’s South Beach harbour viewed through the industrial-chic steel-framed windows of Pier 38. Only the composition, tilted so that the boat masts angled at 45 degrees, hinted at ambition beyond the pedestrian. But a decade later, Instagram has rewired society. It has changed how we look, what we eat, our relationships, how we vote, where we go on holiday and what we spend our money on. From the Kardashians to avocados to mental health, many stories of the past decade are part of the story of Instagram.

The short version of that story goes something like this. Bought by Facebook for $1bn in 2012, Instagram goes to the dark side. Joining forces with the dastardly forces of big tech, it steals our self-esteem and our attention span, leaving us with nothing to show for the trade but a needy dependency on affirmation by virtual strangers and the menagerie of swimming pool inflatables, which Instagram decreed essential to summers circa 2014-16, that are now gathering dust in the loft. Instagram has seen us, like Narcissus gazing at himself in the pond, brought down by our vanity.

The truth is a little bit more complicated. It’s strange to remember, now, that when it started out Instagram wasn’t a beauty contest. Its appeal was to a newly visually sophisticated audience – the kind of people who loved how the right filter made a yellow raincoat pop against a city street. On the first day 25,000 people signed up, and after six weeks there were 1 million users. It was whimsical, arthouse and kind of earnest. The skew to America’s west coast made for a lot of hiking and coffee. I remember scrolling through my Instagram feed from the top deck of a London bus, grey sky outside the windows, and thinking I had never seen so many waterfalls.

We fell for Instagram not because we love looking at ourselves but because we love looking at our phones. Instagram, which was designed for mobile right from the start, was the first platform to recognise that in the 21st century, our most important relationship is with our phone. Neither Twitter nor Facebook were phone-centric as early as Instagram was. This is in part a question of timing: the core Instagram demographic is the first generation for whom being online is the default, rather than something you actively do. As Gretchen McCulloch puts it in her book Because Internet, millennials don’t remember the first time they went online any more than my Gen X counterparts remember the first time we spoke on the phone or watched television. There is a Valentine’s card that does the rounds every February that goes: “You are my favourite person to sit and stare at my phone with” – which is funny because it’s true.

Instagram turned our phones into adult pacifiers. At first, this was a tranquillising reel of pretty pictures, pumped in a steady stream with each thumb-swipe. Like a warm milky drink, but of sunsets and puppies and toes in the sand. Later, and more insidiously, the dopamine hit shifted to refreshing your feed to see how many likes your own pictures had. Either way, we had got ourselves in a feedback loop of attention-seeking in which our emotions were channelled from our brains to our phones and back again. Twitter is about your tribe, Facebook is about home and family, but Instagram is a romance between just you and your phone.

When Justin Bieber joined Instagram in 2011, his first post was a classic of the early Instagram playbook of randomness: freeway traffic, heavily cross-processed for a 70s-road-trip vibe, captioned “LA traffic sucks”. The servers crashed repeatedly under the weight of Beliebers signing up and leaving comments. The arrival of one of the world’s biggest pop stars, posting what he saw out of the window of his SUV, was a landmark in Instagram’s shift from whimsy to becoming a behemoth of pop culture. Within eight months, Bieber was the first celebrity to reach 1 million followers, and the Instagram arms race had begun.

It was 2012 when everything changed. Two things happened, flipsides of the same coin: Instagram was bought by Facebook, and Kim Kardashian signed up. Both represented the monetisation of Instagram, which, until then, had had no clear business model. The Facebook deal spelt out in cold, hard cash the size and strategic importance of the space Instagram was coming to occupy in our lives. Kardashian’s first post was, naturally, a selfie in service to her brand: blowing a kiss to camera, all lips and lashes. The ethos of modern Instagram – that all of us have an audience for whom we perform a kind of scripted-reality version of our lives – is the Kardashian way of life. The age of the selfie had dawned, with the Kardashian household as the Camelot of Instagram. In 2013, the phrase “do it for the ‘gram” – doing stuff so that you can post evidence of yourself doing it on Instagram – was added to the Urban Dictionary.

The layout of Instagram, a steady sequence of same-size images, turns us all into celebrities. Only fame (or infamy) will get your face splashed on to the front page of a newspaper or a billboard, but on your Instagram feed, your holiday selfie is the same size as Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Your cousin’s work drinks get equal billing to Jennifer Aniston playing pool with Courteney Cox. Everyone gets their 15 minutes. Indeed, until very recently, there was no “repost” button similar to the Twitter retweet, so you had to make your own content to take part. There is something charming, still, about seeing celebrities living cheek-by-jowl with us civilians on Instagram, but it has had a damaging impact for many people. The bar for beauty and glamour is high and the opportunities for comparison and scrutiny many. The clumsy, obvious cross-processing of early filters has been sidelined in favour of Photoshop-lite apps, the most popular of which uses an on-screen “magic wand” to whiten teeth, sharpen jawlines and erase blemishes. Filtering, once an artistic flourish, has become laser-focused on vanity.

These days, Instagram is always looking in the mirror, even when it seems to be having fun. Cartoonish filters launched to fend off the threat of Snapchat, hugely popular among younger users, can give you funny cat ears and snuffly baby-animal noses, but they can also give you big almond eyes and a heart-shaped face with wide cheekbones. They turn every face into the look that the essayist Jia Tolentino, writing in the New Yorker, dubbed “Instagram face”, a “distinctly white yet ambiguously ethnic” mashup of modern beauty that is equal parts Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski.

The celebrities who piled into Instagram in the Kardashian slipstream began to accept money from brands to promote products, often while ignoring or only ambiguously acknowledging that money was changing hands. This proved phenomenally effective in reaching consumers who traditional forms of marketing were struggling to reach, and a new industry – “influencing” – was born. In 2013, Instagram’s pivot to commerce was complete when the platform began running advertisements. In her book No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture, Sarah Frier tells how Instagram’s CEO, Kevin Systrom, insisted that the first adverts mirrored regular posts, with no text on the image. His template was the way advertising works in Vogue, where brands employ the same photographers and models as the magazine so that their ads blend seamlessly into editorial pages.

As Instagram’s fifth-ever employee, Jessica Zollman had deep knowledge of what would fly on the platform. That knowledge was such a valuable asset, in 2013 she gave up working for Instagram and began making Instagram work for her, creating branded content. But after making a “really, really impressive amount of money” as an influencer, she left four years later, citing rocketing competition and a psychological toll of what she calls the “song and dance performance” of Instagram. She told the BBC: “I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Why am I so ashamed of the idea of having to get a job?'” She now works as a photographer.

In 2015, Essena O’Neill, an 18-year-old Australian influencer who had more than half a million followers, deleted almost all of the 2,000 photos she had posted, saying they “served no purpose other than self-promotion”. She posted a YouTube video explaining how the reality of a life spent taking endless photos with “stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed-up boobs” had “consumed” her with a hunger for social media validation. A 2017 report by the Royal Society for Public Health polled 1,500 young people in the UK asking them to report how social media platforms impacted their mental health and wellbeing, and found that Instagram was ranked as having the most negative impact.

As Instagram got older, its users got younger. To keep up, the calm, gallery-stroll mood of the original iteration switched to an ever more frenetic pace. In 2016 Instagram Stories aped the less considered, more freehand vibe of Snapchat; this year, the introduction of Reels has been an attempt to neutralise the threat of TikTok by giving users a platform for the silly, skit-like videos that are popular there. (Think Laurel and Hardy rather than Irving Penn.) From the outset, younger followers have engaged with Instagram in their own way. Text was swapped for emoji, and posting became embedded within their own social structure with the etiquette of follow-for-follow. The comments under teenage posts have developed a distinctive cadence all of their own, a plaintive call-and-response duet of transactional flattery.

And then 2020 happened. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the bread and butter of Instagram – the selling of an aspirational lifestyle – became problematic. Overnight, escapism felt wrong. Literally, sometimes, as in the case of Arielle Charnas, a New York fashion influencer who faced a backlash for “flaunting privilege” after she documented herself and her family leaving New York for the Hamptons, nanny in tow. Brands abruptly cancelled partnerships; the New York Post dubbed her a “covidiot.” Charnas reported receiving death threats.

With no parties, beach holidays or weddings, Instagram went quiet for much of the lockdown spring. Banana bread doesn’t really pop on the ‘gram. Then, on 2 June, a week after the killing of George Floyd, came #BlackoutTuesday, when 28 million people posted black squares on their Instagram feed to signal support for Black Lives Matter (BLM). Some dismissed #BlackoutTuesday as a performative gesture from a demographic who had little track record of engaging with politics and no sense of the scale of the project of dismantling systemic racism – an accurate assessment but one that nonetheless missed the significance of the moment. Galvanised by BLM, young people were expressing themselves in the space where they had grown up. As they became politicised, Instagram was, as ever, a mirror. And a generation for whom the personal is political saw no conflict between posting a selfie one day and a call to action the next. A representative of the Instagram account Justice for George NYC, which became a hub for information on protests and donations, told the Recode site: “It’s about reaching a wider audience … we have to go where the people are, and Instagram is it.”

Fast-forward a few months, however, and Instagram looks pretty much back to its glossy self, give or take a floral face mask or two. The big news of August was Chrissy Teigen’s pregnancy reveal, a short video in which she cradled her Lycra-clad baby bump, giggling while saying: “Look at this third baby shit.” Early September was all about Kim Kardashian’s solemn statement that “with heavy hearts” her family had made “the difficult decision” to end the long-running TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. A portrait of Cristiano Ronaldo and his wife, Georgina Rodriguez, notched up 13m likes, bumping it briefly into the top 20 most-liked posts of all time, only to be knocked out of the charts two weeks later by a selfie from Kylie Jenner in a silver bustier top. Instagram is a world where the beautiful people rule. But still, it isn’t always pretty.

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