Round Lens in a Square Frame: The Remarkable Story of Instagram
On July 16, 2010, Kevin Systrom was on vacation in Mexico when he snapped a photo of a dog along with the foot of his girlfriend. This photo was uploaded to his brand new app that, at the time, was called Codename. It wasn’t remarkable by any stretch of the imagination, though the dimensions and color saturation of the photo were rather peculiar.
Later, Systrom took a second photo that revealed the location of the iconic first photo: it was a small taco stand named Tacos Chilakos. To this day, the dog’s name and its owner remain unknown.
Systrom probably didn’t know it then, but that one photo would set in motion one of the biggest online success stories in recent memory. Three months after that photo, he would go public with his app (now rechristened with the name Instagram). By the first week, 100,000 users had signed up. By the end of 2010, he already had a million people using his app. By August 2011, 150 million photos had been uploaded.
To call Instagram a phenomenon would be the ultimate understatement, considering its significant cultural impact. Just like how Facebook can be abbreviated to “FB,” simply saying “IG” in reference to Instagram is accepted vernacular in many social circles. One glance at its now famous Polaroid camera icon and people recognize it immediately. Like Coca-Cola and Apple, Instagram has become a major brand.
Instagram has not only revolutionized popular culture (with its endless array of food porn pictures, outfit of the day snapshots, and selfies), but has also made an impact on social media marketing and brand identity. As of February 2015, Instagram averages 300 million monthly active users. In addition, 70 million photos on average are shared on its platform each day, and 2.5 billion likes are made daily.
Yet none of this would have happened had Systrom not given up on his favorite alcoholic beverage.
Origins: How Burbn became Instagram
Instagram was the off-shoot of a much earlier, rougher idea built over numerous weekends. An employee of Nextstop, Kevin Systrom worked weekdays but spent his evenings learning to code and developing his first photo and note sharing service online. His first creation was called Burbn, and while it felt and worked liked the Instagram people know today, it had elements of geo-tagging made popular by Foursquare.
Named after Systrom’s beverage of choice, it let users take photos and share them online. Burbn also allowed users to check-in their locations, make future plans, and earn points for achievements along the way (this, of course, sounds suspiciously like the old Foursquare).
While Burbn did manage to gain some traction, Systrom was rather unhappy with how it had turned out. He felt that the interface was cluttered with too many features that overwhelmed the entire app. If there was one silver lining to the situation, Burbn’s creation introduced Systrom to Mike Krieger, who shared his sentiments on Burbn’s overall performance. Together, they made the decision to redo Burbn from the ground up, and would go on to co-found Instagram.
In retelling Instagram’s genesis with Quora, Systrom stated that he wanted his company to focus on being really good at one thing. Systrom recalls that the decision to redesign Burbn was a difficult one, but that he and Krieger were already going “out on a limb” with it. With the help of analytics, they retained what they both saw was the most popular feature of their app: photo sharing.
It was then that they discovered that “one thing” they could be good at, and decided to turn the former Foursquare knock-off into a powerful photo sharing app. With $500,000 in funding, they went on to make Internet history. Today, all that’s left of the original Burbn is an abandoned Twitter account, with one tweet in particular announcing the hiring of Krieger.
How Instagram Charmed a Generation of Millennials and their Parents
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact qualities and circumstances that fueled Instagram’s growth, those who regularly use the app say it allows them to share snapshots of their lives in a very creative manner. Instagram’s rise also coincided with the introduction of increasingly sophisticated digital technology and Internet connectivity.
One could argue that Instagram feeds into the nostalgia element Millennials often crave. The 4:3 aspect ratio Instagram uses is a throwback to the Polaroids used by the preceding generation, and the old, weathered look the app can achieve with creative filters reinforces that sense of attachment to an era gone by. The app’s name itself comes from an amalgamation of “instant” and “telegram,” which Systrom says he and Krieger settled on because “it sounded camera-y”.
Moreover, Instagram has always been about simplicity and functionality, which has helped it grow its user base. While it was easy to dismiss it as another photo-sharing app with filters during its launch, both Systrom and Krieger avoided pitfalls because they recognized the qualities that worked in popular photo apps and avoided those that didn’t. Before Instagram came to town, Hipstamatic was all the rage among photo apps. It looked great and had really nice filters, but sharing edited photos was a real chore.
Facebook was untouchable with its reach across social media, but its app did not have any viable photo sharing features. In essence, Instagram managed to simplify photo sharing by limiting the process to just three taps, and with a little bit of luck, managed to snag a massive following that continues to grow.
One should also note that Instagram as a whole hasn’t changed much since its inception. While many apps have undergone massive overhauls and unrecognizable facelifts, Instagram has undergone few changes (with some improvements and add-ons added to the mix). Outside of advertising, the absence of any premium membership has kept the app within its core product.
There were Bumps along the Road to Success
That’s not to say that Instagram’s hasn’t had its share of troubles along the way. As with any successful venture, there’s bound to be some hiccups, and Instagram has had its share of bust ups that almost turned into PR nightmares.
2012 was a banner year for Instagram. After staying an iOS exclusive app for so long, Instagram was finally introduced to Android devices in April. The company also broke 80 million users by the middle of 2012. However, all these milestones paled in comparison to the announcement that they had been acquired by Facebook for almost $1 billion. At barely two years old, the acquisition was surprising to many despite the app’s massive popularity. With no ad support and business model (let alone making zero revenue at the time), it seemed like Facebook had just spent a billion on a company that might never turn a profit.
On the other hand, some saw the move as brilliant on Facebook’s part as they chose to purchase the best photo app on the market instead of having to make one that would then have to compete with Instagram.
Perhaps the biggest controversy came later that year when
the company decided to change a particular section of its Terms of Service in late 2012. It read:
“…you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you…”
Users interpreted this as Instagram taking any photos without the owner’s consent and using them for ads or sponsored content within the site. With Instagram’s aforementioned acquisition by Facebook, coupled with Facebook’s already infamous issues with privacy and user data, the outraged response was almost to be expected. The joke at the time was that users shouldn’t have been concerned with Instagram stealing their pictures for commercial use, mostly because the pictures they took weren’t great anyway.
Along with widespread outrage, the change to the Terms of Service brought up further privacy concerns over how companies like Instagram handled user submitted data. The New York Post reported a massive drop in users during that period, going from 16.35 to 8.42 million. With NSA allegations already taking up so much of the headlines in the United States, the cause for concern was genuine. In response, Instagram reverted back to its original Terms of Service, with Systrom saying that the language used in the terms was confusing, and that he would work to make sure it was clearer.
Exciting New Developments on the Horizon
So what’s next for Instagram? For one, the company is on course to release Bolt—its first foray into the instant photo game that’s dominated by apps like Snapchat, but having the advantage of a large, established user base. The name is certainly fitting for a company that prides itself on simplicity, as it would imply the sharing of photos and videos at the speed of lighting.
Incidentally, while this has yet to see a release in the United States, it already is attracting a great deal of controversy over the name, with several, already established apps of the same name asking Instagram to rename the service.
“Bolt” is already the name of an established call and SMS app that boasts over 50,000 downloads. The company responsible for the app is asking Instagram to change the name of its new product. Also, Instagram’s increasing integration with Facebook has fueled rumors that both social media platforms will eventually merge.
None knows exactly where Instagram will go from here, but for now, it reigns above all other photo sharing apps and isn’t likely to relinquish its throne anytime soon. From its beginnings as an app that wanted to be like Foursquare, to the photo app that everyone wants to become, Instagram’s story is just as interesting as the photos you see being shared on its platform on a daily basis.
As long as technology keeps getting better and many people aspire to be great photographers, there will always be room for apps like Instagram. Yet even more so, sometimes a good idea can still become a better idea if you’re willing to let it evolve.
In an interview with Pando Daily, Systrom summed up what all that experimenting and scrapping of ideas meant to him:
“It’s about going through false starts…Burbn was a false start. The best companies in the world have all had predecessors. YouTube was a dating site. You always have to evolve into something else.”
Not bad for a guy who only began to learn computer science coding during those nights after work.
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