On July 16th, 2010 at 1:26pm, Mike Krieger posted the first picture to Instagram—a heavily filtered image of a window framing a marina. In creating Instagram, which rose from the ashes of Krieger and cofounder Kevin Systrom’s previous location-based app Burbn, “I wanted to give people the tools to share their life as it happened,” Krieger tells me.
Nearly 10 years after Krieger’s first post, Instagram has grown from 90 million monthly active users in 2013 to a billion and the app is valued at more than $100 billion. It is perhaps Facebook’s best bet, given the $1 billion price tag when Facebook acquired it in 2012. Krieger and Systrom resigned in 2018, but that hasn’t stopped Instagram’s growth. It’s a colossal money-maker: The app’s share of Facebook’s revenue is projected to grow to 30% globally by 2020. Cosmopolitan‘s editor-in-chief Jessica Pels tells me that her magazine’s average reader opens it at least 42 times a day.
I wanted to give people the tools to share their life as it happened.”
Instagram began the decade by making it easy to transform terrible photos into beautiful, sharable images. But as the platform shifted from posting photos in chronological order to one based on an algorithm, it became a marketplace for attention, one that has trained us to project ourselves in ways the algorithm will reward. As Instagram redefined the way we interact with brands, making celebrities and companies more approachable and human, it turned the rest of us into brands as well, endlessly adjusting our images to satisfy a market that might even provide financial returns.
Scrolling back to my first Instagram posts in October 2011, I can see this shift in my own feed. Just one person liked my inital post. It’s a blurry picture of two friends: Tom, staring deadpan into the camera, and Alessandra, sticking her tongue out, her hand in a “hang loose” sign. That’s in contrast to my latest: a high-resolution selfie with my boyfriend at a football game, filtered to make my skin look brighter and erase the bags under my eyes. I posted it because I like the photo of us, and if I’m honest, because this type of content tends to do well with my 824 followers: it received 86 likes.
Despite my reservations about the ways Instagram has influenced my self-image, the platform helps me keep track of social trends and keep up with family and friends around the world. Still, in looking through my feed after almost nine years on the platform—my entire adult life—it’s difficult for me to imagine myself before I became so involved in my own branding.
Turning authenticity into #aesthetic
Branding has always been a visual exercise. Even from the beginning, Instagram created the perfect, flattened frame within which a deliriously bright aesthetic emerged: Bold colors, plants, sunsets, and latte art became defining features of photos shared on the app. At a time when it wasn’t easy to edit photos on an iPhone, Instagram’s filters made it simple to improve pictures, differentiating the platform from competitors like Instamatic. The origin of the resulting aesthetic, according to Krieger, was an accident—the bright wall that popped up in your neighborhood café may have become popular because the early iPhone camera quality was so bad. “Camera phone photos just didn’t look good,” he says. “Filters were a good way of masking that.”
I was not immune to the trend: from 2014 to 2015, I posted countless skyline photos taken while running around the reservoir in Central Park. In 2016, I posted a plate of raspberries on a millennial pink table at Instagram-friendly restaurant Dimes. Murals that serve as photo backdrops showing multi-colored hearts or Willie Nelson changed city streets. In 2016, the trend culminated in the sold out Museum of Ice Cream pop-up, where visitors including Beyonce (136 million followers) and Kim Kardashian (154 million followers) took photos against playhouse-like installations. In 2017, I’m embarrassed to admit I left a De La Soul set at a music festival early to participate in a brand activation: I leapt into a ball pit sticky with spilled beer with some friends for a video, to show just how much fun we were having at the concert we had left.
The “Explore” tab (formerly “Popular”) is also to blame for the proliferation of mundanities like avocado toast photos, as people emulated others’ likeable content. “Every single person in the world saw the same thing, which in some ways is really cool because you got to see what the world was thinking about,” Krieger says. Sometimes, it was a place of authentic expression. “There were some really powerful moments, like when earthquakes hit Japan in 2011 and there was a lot of ‘pray for Japan’ posts on the tab,” he says.
Every single person in the world saw the same thing…you got to see what the world was thinking about.”
But as the user base grew, Instagram reassessed the tab. It became the first place the company experimented with the ranking and personalization which would later come to dominate the main feed. “As the community got more global with diverse interests, the popular page was no longer as relevant as it used to be,” says Layla Amjadi, who worked on it before becoming the product lead for Instagram Shopping. Today’s Explore tab instead surfaces content that might be interesting to a user based on who they follow and what they like.
Today, mine shows me a mishmash of Mark Ronson GQ photoshoots, protesters in India fighting the Citizen Amendment Act, and a slideshow of comically large cats. Individually, the photos touch on my interests, but seeing them grouped together makes me feel insane, making it unsettlingly clear that the algorithm doesn’t see the world the way that humans do.
My explore tab also features a photo of actress Amanda Seyfriend drinking from a mug, a snapshot that looks like something one of my friends could have posted. Celebrities post the same intimate content on Instagram—childhood photos, goofy selfies, pictures of them looking tired or frazzled—that friends might share with their inner circles. In April, comedian Ramy Youssef posted a picture of himself as a child smiling in traditional Egyptian clothing. I came across it on my feed directly underneath a childhood friend’s similar #throwbackThursday, where he is dressed in a shalwar kameez.
The influx of celebs to the platform wasn’t organic. Charles Porch, Instagram’s VP of Global Partnerships, began advising the famous on how to “authentically” share their lives on the platform. (Use a private account to practice first, he recommends, to nail the tone and content.) “Celebrities are looking to connect with their fans, they’re looking to give their narrative directly to their community,” he says. Why check the tabloids when Cardi B can tell you all about her breakup herself, right in your feed?
It should be no surprise then that the content shared by people who once seemed inaccessible to the general public—posts like Jennifer Aniston’s infamous Friends cast reunion photo—may not be as candid as it appears. Profiles like @celebface are dedicated to showing how seemingly natural posts are altered to look better. And while Instagram eventually banned filters with cosmetic-surgery-like effects, there is a direct line between the platform and the increased popularity of fillers and contoured makeup. I didn’t know what highlighter was until 2015, but I purchased some the following year. Now, I wear it to enhance the look of my cheekbones at events where I might be photographed and end up on Instagram, like a filter I can wear on my face.
When humans become brands
Instagram shows us celebrities acting normal, but it’s also made normal people into celebrities. Influencers monetize their daily lives, and find niche and not-so-niche audiences: cleaning aficionados, pizza lovers, people who are bizarrely intrigued by this man holding his hands up. It’s lucrative, too. Today, some 2-year-olds make more in a year than I do.
As the name implies, an “influencer” can be insidious, someone who might affect what you want without you being aware of it. Until 2017, paid partnerships did not have to be disclosed at all. It’s a tenuous business, too, a series of pictures and captions that can be lost in an instant: Earlier this year, influencer Lindsie Comerford’s Instagram account, which has more than 41,000 followers, was hacked. She eventually paid another hacker to get her account back.
Nor is influence trustworthy. After being diagnosed with a chronic illness earlier this year I was relieved to see influencers with similar symptoms until I grew alarmed by the misinformation on diets, medication, and homemade cures they proliferated. While the spread of fake content is a problem across social media (see: anti-vaxxers and the 2016 election), the Instagram endorsement feels especially sneaky because those posts sit innocuously next to others from our family and friends.
I too have given small amounts of free advertising and implicit endorsements to brands and locations: Converse shoes, Ottolenghi recipes, and the Brooklyn neighborhood Fort Greene. What I think of as self expression has become a branding exercise—both for myself and for the companies I unintentionally promote.
The app naturally evolved to include more direct kinds of business, something Krieger saw possibilities for early on in 2013. “We were actually investigating an account that we thought was spam because they had posted thousands of photos and then deleted almost all of them,” he says. “But then when we looked into it, there was actually a person in Tunisia who was posting products for sale and then deleting them once they were sold.”
Celebrities and influencers alike use Instagram to sell their own products, as well as themselves. “Maybe if you have a great presence on Instagram, you’re more likely to get cast in this show or this movie because you have such an engaged fan base and we know that you’re going to bring people along,” Porch says. Brands like Kylie Cosmetics became popular after Kylie Jenner promoted them to her 153 million followers.
In 2017 Instagram seized on our familiarity with celebrities, influencers, and brands to launch a shopping feature, which according to Amjadi, “is really the impetus for most of our new big bets.” It partnered with some brands and influencers this year to launch a native checkout feature so users don’t need to leave the app to buy something that’s tagged in a post.
I checked Instagram to see how they looked on other people, unsure of my own taste.
A few months ago I tried on a pair of Everlane jeans in their flagship store. Though I could see my reflection in the mirror, I checked Instagram to see how they looked on other people, unsure of my own taste. I bought them after seeing a willowy model with cool bangs who looked good in them. I posted my own photo wearing them a few weeks later.
In 2016, Instagram’s feed was reorganized by algorithm. I started being more selective and posting less, perhaps noticing an uptick in engagement on photos of myself in particular poses. The app flattens experiences in this way: 2017 was one of the worst years of my life, but you wouldn’t know it from my carefully curated photos, which look the same as those shared the years before and after.
According to Krieger, I wasn’t alone in this behavior. “People started getting more careful about what they put in their feed. It became more curated and it was no longer a way for people to tell stories on the go,” he says. To create an environment where people felt they could share their less polished snaps, the app introduced Stories, a feature ripped straight from Snapchat. This created a place for more spontaneous image-sharing, before it too became subsumed by the neverending pressure to present a certain version of yourself to the world.
This is my biggest fear. A photo of me in a bikini unedited.”
As Instagram’s feed and Stories kept shifting toward a hyper-aestheticized dreamworld, its denizens began to revolt, with teens creating “finstas” to share unedited versions of themselves. But the algorithm has subsumed these rebellions too. Pels and Porch both told me less filtered posts are doing well on the app, and “get real” confessional posts are becoming increasingly popular. Pels points me to a post by pop star Demi Lovato in a swimsuit captioned, “This is my biggest fear. A photo of me in a bikini unedited.”
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This is my biggest fear. A photo of me in a bikini unedited. And guess what, it’s CELLULIT!!!! I’m just literally sooooo tired of being ashamed of my body, editing it (yes the other bikini pics were edited – and I hate that I did that but it’s the truth) so that others think I’m THEIR idea of what beautiful is, but it’s just not me. This is what I got. I want this new chapter in my life to be about being authentic to who I am rather than trying to meet someone else’s standards. So here’s me, unashamed, unafraid and proud to own a body that has fought through so much and will continue to amaze me when I hopefully give birth one day. It’s such a great feeling to be back in tv/film while not stressing myself with a strenuous workout schedule before 14 hour days, or depriving myself from a real birthday cake rather than opting for watermelon & whip cream with candles because I was terrified of REAL cake and was miserable on some crazy diet shit. Anyway, here’s me, RAW, REAL! And I love me. And you should love you too! Now back to the studio.. I’m working on an anthem.. ????????????????????????♀️ also. Just so everyone’s clear.. I’m not stoked on my appearance BUT I am appreciative of it and sometimes that’s the best I can do. I hope to inspire someone to appreciate their body today too. ???? #nationalcelulliteday #celluLIT ????????????
It can be reassuring to see people reveal their struggles, even refreshing to see a pulled-back curtain on the perfect beach shot. But as the Instagram scrollers have gotten tired of the same images over and over again, they’re rewarding what deviates from the previous norm—creating a new standard for authenticity that the algorithm then starts pushing, a feedback cycle designed to keep us scrolling.
And given the nature of Instagram’s market of attention, the new authenticity gets quickly branded, making it hard to distinguish sincerity from salesmanship. A confessional Instagram post invoking the body positivity movement can double as ad copy for an underwear company. Hashtags, which started out as a way for users to classify their pictures based on interests, now tell us whether the post is sponsored or not. The transparent gesture of posting a selfie online with a caption like “need validation today” might also move units of makeup.
The app’s founders are seemingly not immune to this vortex. Krieger and Systrom resigned abruptly in September 2018 amid rumors of tension between them and their parent company—Systrom’s personal feed comes to a sudden halt in May of that year. Instagram is now run by Adam Mosseri, a member of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle who previously oversaw the site’s newsfeed.
Recently, the app’s been experimenting with removing like counts, under the guise of reducing user anxiety. But it’s difficult to imagine a decision like that being made without any economic motives. Facebook’s growth and data science teams have a theory that getting rid of likes may convince users to post more, which would incentivize people to open the app more—similar to what happened when Instagram Stories were introduced.
Scrolling through my feed today, I feel irrationally jealous of my own life: the past nine years look better on the ‘gram than they were. The removal of likes may not get me to the point of posting my lowlights, but I suspect it will encourage me to post more freely about the weirder things I like and share more content only interesting to the immediate circle of friends and family that I stay in touch with through the app.
Lately, I removed push notifications from the app, and I’ve been trying to post photos I enjoy that may get fewer likes—an ad for twin baths from the ’70s, old photos of family members—using the platform as a mood board to showcase things that have caught my eye. It’s a personal rebellion against the subtle ways Instagram has encouraged me to turn into a brand, a flat, visual version of the complex person that lies beneath. But even this small defiance feeds the algorithm, keeping me hooked and scrolling into the next decade.