It's been challenging to research a piece about Instagram, in honor of the company’s 10th birthday. Trying to track the social media platform’s history and scope, I find it suddenly necessary to shop for a billowy fabric sack known as a “nap dress” or pastel-packaged vitamins that I feel, irrationally, could change the course of my career. At one point in my search, I come across a video of a woman roller-skating down a boardwalk and consider my next move: Should I buy her outfit? Travel to that boardwalk? Or just get up, go outside, and try to post some pictures?
Instagram is no longer simply a part of our lives. The app, founded in 2010, began as a party locator called Burbn but has since become integrated into every way we live. We use our feeds to determine how we eat, shop, decorate our homes, and travel. When we take photographs, we think about our grid. You don’t need an account, or even an interest in social media, to be profoundly influenced by the lifestyle and aesthetics of an app that investors once foolishly considered a lesser competitor to Foursquare.
Critics dismiss Instagram as vapid or vain, an argument that veers carelessly between sexist and over-simple. This summer, as mass protests against racist violence broke out across the country, the same pundits that treat Instagram as millennial nonsense acknowledged that social media had provided a platform where people gathered to organize and disseminate educational information. At the same time, research suggests social media can have a negative impact on mental health. In a 2017 survey of just under 1,500 teenagers, Instagram tied with Snapchat as the “most detrimental,” with respondents saying they associate the apps with anxiety, depression, and fear of missing out. On the other hand, if you follow the Australian Shepherd hashtag, as many body positive models as you can find, and kindly knitting enthusiasts, your Instagram experience will be expansive and uplifting.
Instagram is more complicated than “good for us” or “bad for us.” It's a platform for a virtual life based in storytelling, which is a much grander project than judgmental pundits and concerned parents acknowledge. Instagram has transformed us, and it’s only just old enough to go to middle school. Here are just some of the ways our lives have forever changed.
Influencers emerged as an industry.
“All influence is immoral,” says a character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story of a very pre-’gram influencer gone awry. “To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul.” And yet politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, and people who were popular in high school have always had the power of influence over us. Instagram has, at least, made the industry of influencers more democratic: While some of the most followed people on the app still include the usual suspects of rich people and movie stars, talent and authenticity rise to the top. Instagram introduced us to Plantkween, a queer plant-fluencer, The Nap Ministry, a revolutionary movement promoting rest, and absurdist comedian Meg Stalter, whose flailing impressions of bizarre women mesmerize.
“The app has become a celebrity-making machine, the likes of which the world has never seen,” writes Sarah Frier in her book No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. “More than 200 million of Instagram’s users have more than 50,000 followers, the level at which they can make a living wage.” To put that in context: “Millions of people and brands have more Instagram followers than the New York Times has subscribers.”
Instagram’s goal, the company tells us, is to harness the ability to influence for good: “Instagram is where pop culture happens,” says Charles Porch, head of global partnerships for Instagram. “I want Instagram to continue to be a force that is changing society for the better and helping highlight important issues and get the word out and change hearts and minds.” He cites comedian Ziwe Fumudoh, whose Instagram Live show, Baited With Ziwe, makes conversations about race into perversely moving entertainment. Watching along with tens of thousands as Fumudoh asks influencers to confront their biases, it's impossible to deny that Instagram has produced art.
Celebrities became their own paparazzi.
Justin Bieber has posted on his Instagram 17 times in the past week. But according to Frier's book, when the singer joined the platform in 2011 his manager—the infamous Scooter Braun—told the company the pop star would stop posting unless the company paid Bieber for content or let him invest. Instagram declined. Yet Bieber and his 148 million followers remain on our timelines today.
Even at Bieber's level, celebrities need Instagram to connect directly with fans. Without leaving their homes, they can cultivate intimate snapshots of their lives that don’t require leering paparazzi or editorializing in interviews. These days if January Jones pours beer into a bath, climbs in, and starts talking about sperm, we know about it. Not because of a blind item blog post or a “source close to the star,” but because she posted it herself.
Gomez's first ever Instagram post
“When I first started at Instagram, I would call a lot of celebrities and ask them to join, and they would say, ‘Why do I need another social media platform?’” says Porch. Snoop Dogg was Instagram’s earliest A-lister—when he posted his first photo in 2011, he had 19 followers. Porch credits Bieber and Selena Gomez as early adopters, bringing in their legion of followers. The company worked hard to build relationships with these major names—Frier tells a story in her book about Instagram’s founder, Kevin Systrom, rescuing Ashton Kutcher from a burning building on a getaway weekend. Bonded by the traumatic experience, Kutcher threw Systrom a party, introducing him to future Instagram regulars like the Jonas Brothers and Harry Styles. “What is it you do?” Frier says Systrom politely asked a young woman at the party. She explained that she performed, and her name was Ariana Grande.
Porch is responsible for helping celebrities and organizations—the Kardashians, the pope, and the Olympic games are examples he gives, in that order—navigate Instagram. To nudge the pope to consider the platform, Porch flew to Rome with Systrom and presented the Catholic leader with a book of images related to his interests that included hand-calligraphed captions. “I didn’t know if he had a smartphone,” Porch says. Weeks later, they got a call: The pope was joining the ’gram. Porch and Systrom flew back to the Vatican to personally onboard the pope. His first caption read, “Pray for me.”
When we’re swiping, we’re shopping.
The success of Instagram’s monetization effort is so big that it’s hard to comprehend. When Instagram was bought by Facebook for a whopping $1 billion in 2012, it was not profitable. The first Instagram ad dropped a year later and, at the time, only one company was allowed to run ads on the app per day, Frier writes. In 2019, Instagram made $20 billion in advertising revenue, making up a quarter of Facebook’s revenue for the year.
But the genius of Instagram is that we’ve come to enjoy the ads. In a 2018 investigation of Instagram shopping in Glamour, Elizabeth Kiefer writes that she found in her research, “These platforms are sometimes better at picking out things they desire than their partners, best friends, sisters, or any other humans who supposedly know us best.”
Mayer Kamkhatchi, CEO of the Insta-popular company Adina’s Jewels, told Kiefer that the platform makes ad-targeting easy. “You choose exactly who you want to target,” he says. “If I want to find 18- to 24-year-old females in the New York City area who drive a BMW, I can nail that customer specifically.”
Whole industries have thrived on Instagram because their products look beautiful or, like QVC for a younger generation, they solve ultra-specific problems—trendy boutique clothing stores, minimalist recycled jewelry, a $60 plastic fountain that provides a steady stream of flowing water for house cats. “I actually find it useful to be pushed suggestions for brands and clothing styles my social media profile has determined will be of interest,” Rose Levy, a 33-year-old, told Kiefer. Her IG purchases: Quip toothbrushes, a beer-concealing water bottle, and a swimsuit from Reformation.
We chased the “Instagram face.”
The rise of the internet encouraged us to “optimize” our lives. The rise of Instagram encouraged us to “optimize” our faces, spurred on by lip-enhancement pioneer Kylie Jenner. The high-definition, heavily filtered, up-closeness of Instagram has given rise to the popularity of certain facial features: overinflated lips, lifted brows, cat eyes, sharp jawlines, and inhumanly flawless skin, which can be achieved by a mixture of biology, makeup, face-editing apps, and plastic surgery.
“It was as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism,” Jia Tolentino wrote of what she called “Instagram face” in The New Yorker in 2019. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that technology is rewriting our bodies to correspond to its own interests.”
If that sounds extreme, ask just about any IG frequenter you know. Glamour editor Perrie Samotin wrote about her decision to get lip fillers: “I was hyper aware of a specific standard of beauty that started to pervade and overtake popular culture, and found myself hoovered right in. With every Insta-girl that I upward-scrolled past, the more my face started to seem too pedestrian, too uneventful, too earnestly natural.”
Instagram is a live magazine that goes to press every second. On it, we place our faces and bodies next to models, who, themselves, have been blurred and tweaked. But the breakout of fabulous fat-positive, body-diverse models have made, arguably, a bigger and more radical impact.
Porch notes the work of boundary-breaking plus-size model Ashley Graham. Or think of Anastasia Garcia, who used Instagram to start #myquarantinebody, spreading the word that gaining weight during quarantine—or any other time—isn’t some tragedy. Katie Sturino’s Instagram “Make My Size” campaign has pushed fashion brands to actually expand their sizing.
We all became food photographers.
There’s a saying in Cantonese that translates, roughly, to “Camera eats first.” People love to make fun of millennials for taking pictures of our food—as if pausing and being grateful for a beautiful meal indicates some kind of moral rot. Joke’s on them: Instagram popular foods have launched restaurants, cafés, bakeries, and a new generation of food innovators—the farm-to-table Chinese-Jewish fusion of Molly Yeh, the social justice cakes of The Sweet Feminist, the juicy, NSFW artistry of Stephanie Sarley.
“I only want to create things that are new,” Yeh told Glamour in 2019. “I don't want to take up space with another avocado toast.” Instead, she made a niche for herself with tahini milkshakes, scallion pancake challah, and tater tot casserole.
The increased value for big, bright food presentation can be seen anytime you scroll Yelp in a new city or check the Discover page for recipes. Our parents had Playboy centerfolds; we have food porn—giant milkshakes, swirling rainbow bagels, and juicy ramen burgers. A Zagat survey of national food trends in 2016 found that almost half of respondents said that they take pictures of their food when eating out to post on social media.
We learned we will fly for followers.
Instagram, National Geographic reported in 2017, has profound influences on travel trends. If you’ve seen an increase of those milky baths in Iceland, the lava-like orange caves of Antelope Canyon, or the green forests and white sands of Tulum, well, can you blame people for taking pictures?
In 2015, a small town in New Zealand started inviting influencers on sponsored trips that resulted in, according to National Geographic, a 14% increase in tourism. Likes have the power to move people, literally: A 2018 study found that those who anticipated a greater “social return” from posts about visiting Cuba were significantly more likely to visit the country. Instagram both widens our perception of what’s available, and narrows our imaginations to places that photograph beautifully.
“I once paid for an expensive day trip to Cinque Terre on my honeymoon because I had seen it on Instagram...and then was disappointed to find it was completely overrun by tourists who I imagine had the same plan,” says Glamour senior editor Anna Moeslein with a laugh. “Still got a cute pic though.”
We’re watching each other…on Stories.
Instagram Stories, which were introduced in 2016, encourage us to watch each other live almost in real time, and then watch each other watch each other, like in an old-timey opera house where one’s fellow audience members are a part of the entertainment. Stories became instantly popular with celebrities, perhaps because they feel more intimate than posts, as well as lower pressure.
They’re also easy to mess up—Erin Parker, a commerce writer for Glamour, says her friends have experienced the particular horror of having a person accidentally respond to your Story when they were clearly trying to send it to someone else behind your back. “It’s a technical nightmare,” she says. But an entertaining nightmare.
That’s the sublime risk of the Stories function. To see Instagram Stories, you must be seen. To satisfy our curiosity, we must expose our own desire! What I’m trying to say is—I don’t think that guy I dated four years ago realizes that I can see that he watches all of my Instagram Stories.
We’re sliding into one another’s DMs.
Instagram is a visual lifestyle platform that depends on a high-octane cocktail of fantasy and reality. Is it any surprise that it quickly took on the qualities of a dating app? Meeting on IG, established via direct message “sliding,” is no longer a fringe practice—a combination of appearance-driven images, special interest communities, and oversharing is just as potent as a bar, if not more.
“It does come up,” Porch admits of famous folks DM-sliding. “Celebrities—they’re just like us! They have their own community of friends. I hear from celebrities all the time that they’re messaging on Instagram. Imagine how many times you’ve seen something funny, cool, inspiring and sent it to a friend—famous people do that too.”
We got real—on Insta, and on Finsta.
When Jennifer Anniston was considering joining Instagram, Porch says, she started a “Finsta.” Short for “fake Instagram,” it's a phenomenon that allows a certain degree of anonymity and an opportunity for more authenticity.
Lorde rated onion rings, until she was found out. Some people think Jake Gyllenhaal has an account for a cat named Ms. Flufflestiltskin. (Gyllenhaal has remained enigmatic on the Flufflestiltskin question.)
Lizzo's flute-themed Finsta
Finstas are truly joyful experience. If our Instagrams show the perfectly polished, caught-in-an-attractive-half-laugh versions of ourselves, Finstas are bizarre and deeply genuine. They subvert the idea that social media accounts are supposed to show off our best selves.
We want to be popular more than ever.
MySpace told us if we were in our friends' “top 8.” Facebook counts us by how many friends we have overall. And Instagram tells us if we are followed—if we are wanted, loved, influential, popular. “Instagram is the ultimate measure of cultural relevance in our society,” Frier tells Glamour. “Imagine if every time you looked someone up, their salary was public.”
In the digital economy, followers mean money. But that economy is constantly in flux—as the app has aged, users' tastes have shifted. “Now there’s too much perfection on Instagram, and some of the visual themes have turned cliché,” Frier says. “Instagram itself is advising celebrities to be vulnerable and talk about struggle because that actually gets better engagement.”
The economy of influence means that our bodies, our thoughts, and our experiences can be traded for likes and follows. But the nostalgia for the time before screens and clicks is also nostalgia for a time when fewer people had platforms, when fewer kinds of bodies and voices could be said to have influence. Instagram, our collective family scrapbook, is 10. May the next decade be one of even greater creativity and compassion, and just as many avocados.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour