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

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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.

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.