What is Instagram and why is it so popular?

What is Instagram and Why Is It So Popular?

Author’s note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Social Lux, in January 2011. Since it continues to get a large amount of traffic every day, and Instagram continues to grow in popularity, I thought I would share it here.

Update: Version 3.0 was released today (August 16, 2012). Read my thoughts on the latest update.

Update: Facebook has acquired Instagram for $1 Billion.

Update: Instagram released an Android version on April 3, 2012. 

Although Instagram has only been around for a little over three months, you’ve most likely heard of it, if not used it. For those of you in the former category, I’ve got an overview for you of what it is and why I think it’s so wildly popular. Instagram is a photo-sharing app for iPhone. Sorry Blackberry & Android users, it’s not available for you yet. One of the reasons Instagram is based on the iPhone is because of its amazing camera. So people are already taking lots of great pictures with their phones, why not try to make them more interesting?

Here’s a bit about the brief but amazingly quick ascendancy of Instagram

  • Launched on October 6, 2010
  • #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
  • iPhone App of the Week
  • Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
  • Launched 7 new languages
  • An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
  • Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012

So why is everyone flocking to Instagram? What does it actually do?

Easy to Get Started

Go to the App Store, Download, Set up account, choose a username and upload a profile pic.

Photo Sharing

You can take pictures within the app or use photos that already exist in your camera roll. You can give your photo a title, which is helpful and fun. Photos can be instantly shared, not only on Instagram, but also Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr. You can also connect with your foursquare account and tag your photos with location. By default, photos are public on Instagram. If you want people to have to ask permission before they follow you, set to private. To date, I don’t follow anyone with a private account. That’s what Facebook is for.

Photo Manipulation

The cool factor of Instagram is the fact that they have 11 different filters you can use to up the interest of your photos. Even boring photos can look amazing with some of these filters.

Instagram has tweaked their filter selection since launch and there are indications that eventually you will be able to purchase additional filters. Filters range from retro to futuristic. When you factor in other photo manipulation apps like DipticCamera+, 100 Cameras and LabelBox, the possibilities are endless.

Screenshots of Instagram's photo editor.
Screenshots of Instagram’s photo editor.


Instagram, like any other social network, is based around having friends or followers. On Instagram you ‘follow’ people. At the top of your profile (or anyone’s profile) you will see the username, profile pic, how many photos have been uploaded, how many followers the account has, and how many they are following. When you follow someone, their photos show up in your stream.

The only other things you can do are like photos and comment on them. Both are appreciated. People ask questions in the comments, like ‘where was this taken’ or ‘what app did you use for that?’. Once you get into using Instagram, you will see how laid back people are and how much fun they are having. It’s currently a very friendly community.

Finding People to Follow

Instagram lets you see which of your Twitter and Facebook friends are using it and easily start following them. There is also an ‘Invite Friends’ feature, but that simply links to your address book. The rest is up to you. Instagram will also suggest users if you like.

My two favorite ways of finding people to follow are:

  1. The Popular Page
  2. Seeing who is leaving interesting comments on pictures I like

The Popular Page shows you which photos currently have the most likes. You will inevitably find 2 cat pictures, 3 sunsets and 4 with really amazing lines (people seem to like symmetry). You can click on any photo on the popular page and see all the other photos posted by that person, and many times you will want to follow. It takes a lot of followers to end up on the popular page, so they’re usually pretty good photographers.

From there, I might look at the photos of some of the people who are leaving comments that I think are a) funny or b) similar to my thinking. Following may ensue.

I also tend to look at photos of people with interesting user names like ‘kyotosong’ or ‘lioness_in_maui’. In general, Instagram is not about promoting your personal brand.

You will, however, find some superstars, if you consider tech geeks to be superstars. Scobleizer and Paris Lemon have accounts, as do Twitter founders Jack Dorsey and Ev Williams.

And a must follow is NPR – amazing photos. National Geographic joined Instagram but has yet to upload a photo. They are, however, taking comments on what you would like to see.

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So that’s the gist of how Instagram works. What makes it so wildly popular?

The photographs.

You will find some of the most amazing photographs you have ever seen on Instagram. The tools we now have allow almost anyone with a decent eye to take beautiful, crisp shots. That’s not to say you won’t find the everyday and mundane, because you will. But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s important to be thoughtful about who you follow, because it’s all about who’s in your feed. What do you find interesting? Some people take shots of nothing but weddings, or landscapes, or horses. Determine what is is you want to look at, or look at whatever strikes your fancy.

There’s no Klout on Instagram.

Just because you’re Dennis Crowley doesn’t mean you’re going to have a million followers on Instagram. It’s all about the pictures. So post the pictures of your dog, or the socks you’re wearing or the street signs you pass on the way to work. It’s OK here.

And no one cares if your follower/following count is upside down, in fact most people’s are. You can go away from Instagram for a week or two and nobody will notice. You can peek in and take a look when you want. Post some pictures when you want. No one is going to unfollow you. And if they do, big deal. No pressure here.

A running documentary of your life.

I’ve posted 150+ pictures in the past two months and I like looking through to see where I’ve been and what I’ve done. You’ll like it too.

The Community.

My experience on Instagram has been extremely enjoyable. I’ve never seen negative comments on people’s pictures. But I have seen people with large followings using those followings to try to do something good, like raise awareness and possibly donations towards those affected by the flooding in Queensland, Australia. I’ve talked to other users from China and Hawaii, and follow people from Amsterdam, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s a very global community and has a flat-world feel.

An Education on our Shared Humanity.

This is my favorite part of Instagram. Getting a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who I’ll never meet, who live in completely different cultures than I do.

What I’ve found is not so much how different we are, but how alike we all are. People all over the world celebrate weddings and birthdays, cherish their children and pets, appreciate a nice sunset or beach scene, like to drink (yes, they do) and are obsessed with food. I love looking at pictures from China and seeing the dichotomy between Old China and New China.  And you can find something that fascinates you as well.

Instagram is a keeper. If you like using it, share with me how you use it or what you’ve learned from looking at all those pictures. If you have a question on using Instagram, or suggestions for some great people to follow, I’d love to hear from you, too. I’m @kellylux on Twitter and Instagram.

Kelly Lux

Kelly is the former Executive Editor of Information Space. Kelly currently teaches courses on Social Media, Online Community Management, and Content Strategy and Application, and she is currently the Assistant Director of the Communications@Syracuse program.

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  • Enea Catalin

    So, Instagram is just like facebook bu only for sharing pictures? I will give it a try..

    Enea. C

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  • Anonymous

    Square is a great entrepreneurial story and the future seems to be bright for Jack Dorsey and company.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the payment processor has no issues to solve and I recently read a review of the service that points squarely (sorry, I couldn’t resist it) at the two biggest gripes users have with the service: the inability to easily speak to a customer service representative and the holds the company places on its users’ money under certain conditions.

    The first issue is easily fixed and I just can’t understand how Square, whose COO is, after all, a former PayPal executive, doesn’t deem it important to provide a number for their customers to call when they have a question.  The second issue is much more complicated, as it has to do with risk management, but Square should at the very least do a better job at communicating its policy.

    Still, overall the Square guys are doing a great job and I’m confident that they’ll improve over time.  http://blog.unibulmerchantservices.com/square-mobile-payments-customer-service-phone-numbers-and-money-holds

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your email. I am out of the office on vacation today Friday February 3rd. I will repy to you email promtly upon my return Monday Febrary 6th.
      Thank you.

  • Gumchewer2day

    add me i want 60 followers before my b day 3 days 

    instagram id: gumchewer3

  • Jamazing101

    Follow me! im new but i’ll post cool pics

    • Erirey

      I’m new too! you can follow me @ererirey

  • Colin

    Sounds really interesting.  I love the way the pictures look and I really love the social media aspects of it.


  • Haileydevillier

    Follow hailey_devillier
    Thanks!! :)))

  • Garyeason

    So it’s the same as Flickr only with far fewer users and lots of really naff photos taken by people who don’t know how to use a camera. I still don’t get the appeal sorry.

    • Caprice

      Yeah, I won’t be flocking to this app anytime soon. I really don’t see how it’s any different from Photoshop other than the benefit of yet another social networking site. The hype will die down in a number of months and I won’t be surprised…

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  • I think its exclusiveness to the “iOS” platform has gained it its popularity .. I think there are many other apps out there which have the same functionality and i’d dare say have better filters for pictures…

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  • Tisch

    Android has the Vignette app, which is not based on followers; it’s just a photo taking app, and you can separately share your photos to wherever. But by far, Instagram has NOTHING on the filters and adjustments you can make to photos with Vignette. Instagram is kind of a joke to me….just saying

    • Kelly Lux

      The appeal of Instagram, as I wrote about in this post, is well beyond the filters available. I use a variety of other photo manipulation apps in conjunction with Instagram to make anything I want, you’re not restricted to only using IG. Also, Instagram is a thriving community. It just depends on what you’re looking for. Thanks for your comment.

  • hothfox

    I waited for it for Android anxiously because I like the social aspect of it better than anything else out there. Now, 95% of my friends use it, and it’s JUST for picture sharing (with comments and geo-tags), not status updates, badges, event invites, links to content, etc. I can see pictures friends post, comment on them, like them, and that’s it.

    I’m sure when it started the iPhone had better picture quality than all of these Android phones, but now that’s an antiquated argument, especially with phones like the HTC Rezound and the HTC One X (though my Nexus takes pretty good pictures too). Back then, Android was sort of still new, I guess, but now it has a HUGE market share, so there’s really no excuse for an app dev not to cater to that community as well.
    Plus I like the filters :X

  • Finally, they have entered Android community. Will give them a try.

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  • paul sykes

    simply BS !

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  • Pizza T

    This reminds me of the internet boom of the 90’s. It’s all gonna fall in value.

  • ondaaah

    “Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010”

    Say WHAT?

    Opera Mini was downloaded 1 million times without 24 hours of being released!


    So where did you get the idea that Instagram was the quickest to reach 1 million?

    • Thanks for pointing that out.  I couldn’t find the original tech crunch post I found that in (as they may have since amended it).  I’ve amended the post.

  • Platty

    You should only say sorry to bb users. Android has these built in capabilities in the camera itself so there is no need for an outside app apart from capabilities to follow someone like on twitter. With an HTC amaze or One S for example, you can add all those filters and more, share you fotos with anyone or any social site and mash fotos together from withing the camera setting. No need for an outside source. Also, the camera on an iphone fades in comparison to the ones on the android platform otherwise there would be no need for an outside app to enhance pictures of a device with such am=n “amazing camera” as mentioned. 

  • Jen

    But why is everyone so obsessed and always asking, “Do you have an instagran?” – Rylie

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  • newcrew

    that helped thank you

  • ron

    I was never really interested in getting instagram until I read your blog. thanks…

  • Barb Leonard Kunde

    what are all the hash tags for? do you make up your own words? how does that all work?

    • Hi Barb, When you use a hashtag (#) on Instagram, twitter or facebook, it makes the post searchable. For instance if I post a photo of my dogs, I sometimes use the #dogsofinstagram tag. That is a known hashtag and people use it to search for photos of dogs. Make sense?

      • fred

        o really explain t more

  • Gayl

    Thank you!!

  • I love instagram

    nice explained really well thx

  • Anonymous, of course

    I think d like the photo options on Instagram, but I’m a little worried about keeping my anonymity. Can people track who you are on Instagram even if you don’t post photos of your face? I was able to locate the phone number and address of a girl my friend thought was seeing her bf on the side just by zooming in on a Facebook photo the possible-perp left open to friends of friends. It’s scary to imagine what kind of information can be leaked by the background of a photo. If Instagram is not anonymous, it’d be very easy for someone to track everywhere you go by what local landmarks you post. Since you cannot stop people from following you, what kind of protective methods are in place on Instagram? It seems like its only for teeny boppers who pose in mirrors with their friends, but I’m seeing Instagram everywhere. If the program doesn’t offer anonymity, it would most definitely be dangerous. As a parent, I constantly fear what my child might be saying in an in-app undetectable chat room, what kind of pictures they might receive in a text, and now (if Instagram isn’t anonymous) ill also have to worry about undetectable pictures helping chat room creeps stalk my loved ones.

    • I’m not really sure what you mean by ‘anonymous’…pictures on Instagram are public. You choose how much information you include in your bio, and you can block unwanted followers. You are correct, Instagram has grown popular with teens who want to escape their parents on Facebook, but it is also used by professional photographers, major brands and plenty of regular adults. In my opinion, it is better to teach young teens the rules of the internet, and how to stay safe, rather that not allowing them to utilize the same technology many of their friends are using, and that they will surely be using when they get a bit older. Learning how to safely navigate the internet is a lifeskill everyone needs.

      • bibleexpert

        I know nothing about instagram (never used it), but my understanding is that – unlike with Facebook – you can only make your instagram private (accessible only to you) or public (accessible to everyone). Am I wrong about this?

  • K2Bsolutions

    Exact Post which i searched for ., Thanks for Sharing

  • Abmer

    Thanks for your explanation.
    I like instagram so much
    I heard one apps called ” Instagrab”
    It can download photos and videos also, it can bookmark the people.

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  • Anthony Bates

    The explanation is much appreciated.

  • gemcrazy

    I do not have a fancy phone, does this mean I cannot get Instagram ?

    • Kelly Lux

      Yes, Instagram is only available as an app on smartphones, specifically iOS and Android.

    • Anoop

      Which phone do you have ?

      • Kelly Lux

        Currently have iPhone 5C, which is not great taking pix. Will be upgrading to iPhone 6 soon.

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  • unknown

    nice job explaining way better than Wiki

  • unknown

    what is a hashtag#

    • Kelly Lux

      A hashtag is a symbol (#) placed in front of a word or phrase that allows you to search for others using the same word or phrase. Hashtags are user driven and anyone can make up their own. However, if you want your photos to be found with others on a specific topic, say #dogsofinstagram, you want to use known hashtags. Search specific words/topics and you will usually find similar hashtags. Search those hashtags and see if they are widely used for what you think they’re used for before using them yourself. Hope this was helpful!

    • Leaping Spiritmaster

      A hashtag is used for numbers. At least that’s what it was originally used for until we started using it for all the stuff on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc

  • What you don’t explain is where you can use it. I don’t have a smart phone – is the assumption that you can’t use it on a Windows laptop?

    • Kelly Lux

      Caroline, Instagram is strictly a mobile app, available in the Apple App Store and Google Play store. The idea of Instagram is to take pictures with your phone and instantly upload and share them. Hope that helps!

    • You can use a windows laptop with Instagram. There are tools such as gramblr which can upload photos. I’ve never used it but you can google it and find where to download it and use it.

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  • Guest

    This is more informative than the insta gram site. Thanks

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  • Vimal

    I loved the way you write and explained.

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  • madinah hart

    But its highly uneducational. It doesn’t teach kids nothing but take a pic of me and like it. Really is that the best apple can do?

    • Actually, it’s not an Apple product. Facebook bought Instagram for $1B dollars after they had been around a little more than a year. If you thinks it’s all about selfies, you need to do some more exploring of Instagram.

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  • Lynne R McAnulty-Street

    What I don’t “get” is – what’s wrong with Flickr, or any of the other photo sharing sites around. Is it the invention of hashtags? Big deal- they serve the same purpose as Tags.
    I’ll admit I’d consider it, but as yet can see no compelling reason, sorry.

    • Hi Lynn – the difference is the the simplicity of the UX and the community that has been built around Instagram. It’s in my pocket all the time, a glimpse into the world of my friends and people who interest me. Flickr is a great site, but it doesn’t engender the community vibe that Instagram does. Instagram is an ‘as-it-happens’ stream of photos. Not one where you take pix with your great camera, upload them to your computer and post them afterwards. It really has nothing to do with tags or hashtags. It’s not for everyone, of course, but it’s definitely made a lot of friends around the world. 🙂

      • Darren Meyers

        Can’t you upload pictures to facebook in real time(minus all the filters?)

        • Kelly Lux

          Yes, of course you can.

  • Hi, I’m not really sure what kind of information I can provide to you. I have a 19 year old daughter, so I’m not unaware of the concerns of a parent. My own feeling is that you teach your kids well, and share your values with them, and then hope for the best. Most kids I know that are 15 are on Instagram, and Snapchat, and twitter. Very difficult to put the lid on social networking once the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ so to say. Show her stories about kids who have gotten into trouble on the internet, she needs to be educated so she is able to self-monitor. Hope this helps!

  • leo mathew

    I think in many countries are developing in technology like America, British, Japan, India, etc. Mostly all are interested in application development in various domains like iphone, android and web. It is very useful to shows each and every person talent in specific country.

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  • SWaG ObitO

    I can upload new pics on the computer right?

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  • I don’t think so.

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  • Hoffco

    Stupid juvenile crap created for identity searchers. Get a frigging life!

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  • I don’t any smartphone to use Instagram but i have windows PC can i use it on my PC?

  • Christian McGuire

    Someone needs to learn how opinions work.
    This came off as my opinion is correct and if you disagree, you are incorrect. Ie the use of the phrase “sorry folks” when responding to a differing opinion.

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  • Can someone teach me how to use instagram? lol

  • Leaping Spiritmaster

    I am grounded from my phone. Is this available on a computer or Chromebook?

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  • i have got very clear info from this post you have explained very clearly.

  • its so informative things you have shared thanks for sharing this valuable things.

  • bibleexpert

    an actual example would be more instructive

  • 6RAT 2016

    As a 71 year old male who obviously got into home computers later in life, I found that Instagram is challenging for me – especially in that our computers and phones are Windows 8.1 & 10. I was able to sign up but then it got complicated. I have been into photography since I bought my Leica M4 & M2r so many years ago in NYC I am on Face Book and I have shared many photos there.
    Any advice on the best way for me to get into Instagram? I tried the Blue Stack app which was a bit cumbersome.
    Thanks, John