Instagram is one of the most popular social media apps on the market right now and by far the most popular photo-sharing app. With over one billion monthly active users and steadily growing, it’s amazing how the company has become so large while maintaining its simple concept.
Other social media platforms tend to have quite a bit of drama surrounding their origin stories. Instagram is a bit of an exception. How it came to be is far from boring, but it is more a story of interesting coincidences and impressive achievements than it is about corporate in-fighting. Instagram’s drama came mostly after it had become an established platform.
If you are looking to learn more fun things about Instagram, check out this list of the most liked Instagram posts of all time.
On The Backs Of Giants
Instagram did not start its development until 2010. That means many of the other iconic social media platforms had already paved the way for it, and the developers already had some established space to innovate in.
In 2009, Kevin Systrom was working at a travel recommendation startup in San Francisco, after previously working with Google and Odeo — keep that in mind for later on. This was around the time of Facebook and Twitter becoming global successes, and everyone was trying to jump on the new and lucrative field of social media, Systrom included.
As seems to be the case with successful social media applications, Instagram started its life as something completely different, Burbn. Taking inspiration from his love of fine whiskey and the five-letter shortened name trend that was going around for apps at the time, Systrom developed Burbn in his free time, using the coding and business sense he had picked up from previous tech jobs.
Burbn was intended to be a location check-in app, where people could show they went to a particular place registered on the app and leave a log of their experiences. It was a nifty idea, which is why the market was already heavily saturated with check-in apps, such as the wildly more popular Foursquare. It was already hard to cut it in such a dense field, and Burbn by intention heavily narrowed its main appeal to bar hoppers. However, Burbn had a feature that was unique among its competitors, which would later come to define it and eventually shape it into Instagram: the ability to posts pictures along with your text updates.
Chance Meetings and Big Opportunities
Systrom was attending a party in 2010 for Hunch, another Silicon Valley tech startup when he met a couple of venture capitalists from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. He chatted them up and showed off a prototype version of Burbn that he’d put together, the investors voiced immediate interest in his project. They all agreed to meet up for coffee a few days later so Systrom could properly pitch the app. The meeting must have gone spectacularly because it was all Systrom needed to quit his job at the time and focus on developing Burbn full-time.
Instagram could have easily ended as a tragic story there, but Systrom had connections and a promising idea. It only took him two weeks to get Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz to invest a total of 500,000 dollars in his new idea. This funding allowed Sysrtrom to pull in some other tech talent, such as Mike Krieger. Krieger had valuable experience as a software engineer and user experience designer from his time at Meebo. He was also a graduate of Stanford, where he and Systrom originally met. Together, Krieger and Systrom would become the co-founders of Instagram.
Scrap, Salvage, and Improve
Krieger and Systrom immediately set to work reimagining Burbn, the two of them keenly aware that the app would struggle to succeed in its current form. They decided to scrap the check-in service identity altogether and focus mainly on the picture sharing and social media elements that people were responding well to. With their new lane established, they started researching other popular photo-sharing apps of the time.
The app that got their attention the most was called “Hipstamatic.” The app allowed people to edit their photos by applying filters, adding little stickers or captions, and a few other similar customization options. If you think that sounds a lot like some of the things you can do with Instagram, you’d be right, and it is not a coincidence at all.
Krieger and Systrom saw the popularity and use for these features, but Hipstamatic was a simplified photo editing app. They recognized the potential of adding these capabilities directly into a social media platform. The plan to bridge the gap between Hipstamatic and Facebook was formed.
Krieger and Systrom broke down Burbn’s architecture into just the picture sharing, commenting, and liking functions. They then polished these main elements relentlessly. The idea was to create a social media and picture sharing service that was as streamlined and easy for the user as possible. It was also around this time that they came up with the name “Instagram” — a combination of “instant” and “telegram.”
The co-founders spent about eight weeks coding, troubleshooting, and improving the new design as much as possible. However, they did not add anything extra. From the start, the intention was for Instagram to be minimalist and appeal to people with is simplicity. The two developers then distributed the app to a few of their friends for beta testing. The first showing of Instagram was fairly solid, as there were only some minor errors that needed to be fixed before the app was ready to publish.
Launch and Breakout Success
The Instagram app was released to the iOS app store in October 2010 and was downloaded over 25,000 times by the end of the day. The first week saw a total of 100,000 downloads, and over one million Instagram accounts had been created before Christmas that year. It’s theorized that the app might not have had such instantaneous success if Apple had not released the iPhone 4 only a few months before Instagram was released to the public. One of the iPhone 4’s main selling points was its vastly improved picture-taking capabilities. Since Instagram is a mobile app all about sharing pictures, it makes sense to think Instagram owes some of its success to people being eager to try out the hyped-up features on their new phones.
Instagram continued to grow at an astonishing rate, and this got the attention of quite a few more investors. Offers were pouring in, and after their first round of Series A funding, the company raised 7 million dollars — barely five months after the initial launch. One of the bigger names among Instagram’s early investors is Benchmark Capital, whose own valuation of the company estimated its worth to be about 25 million dollars.
With all this money and more on the horizon, Systrom and Krieger could have easily expanded Instagram into an enormous operation, but neither of them wanted that. Instagram continued to grow in popularity and wealth over the next few years but the team running it never got above a dozen people.
A Story of Acquisitions
As Instagram continued to grow rapidly it not only started to attract the attention of investors but also competitors. Social media was an emerging and competitive world at the time, and Instagram was a breakout success that took a lot of people by surprise. A team of only a few people had put together something that was threatening to shake up the top spots of social media platforms.
Remember how Systrom used to work at Odeo? Well, Jack Dorsey, one of the co-founders of Twitter, also happened to work at Odeo around the same time as Systrom. In late 2011/2012, Twitter was becoming one of the established giants of social media. Dorsey reached out to Systrom, expressing interest in Instagram and offering to buy it for 500 million dollars. Systrom promptly rejected the offer.
Instagram continued independently and became a giant force in its own right. 27 million users had registered for Instagram by March 2012, and the April release of the Instagram app for Android saw one million downloads in a single day. The company was also expecting another round of investor funding to the tune of 500 million dollars, the same amount Dorsey wanted to buy the company for.
It was then that the biggest name in social networks took notice. The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, had become acquainted with Systrom at some events, and the two of them allegedly maintained contact throughout Instagram’s climb in popularity. In April 2012, Facebook announced its plan to purchase Instagram for 1 billion dollars.
Facebook said from the beginning they intended to let Instagram continue operating independently, and this must have been the thing Systrom and Krieger were looking to hear. After some legal clearings by high-profile UK and United States commerce committees, Facebook acquired Instagram.
It’s worth noting that this acquisition happened shortly before Facebook’s IPO. Some people thought this was a risky move, others claim that it is partially responsible for Facebook having almost the best IPO in United States history. Either way, as a result, this makes Instagram the biggest social media company to have never technically filled for an IPO.
A Bump in the Road
One of the only real controversies in Instagram’s history occurred in December of 2012. The company made a sudden change to its terms of service. No doubt, many people ignored this unexpected update, but the few people that bothered to read the terms of service made an unsettling discovery. The TOS update more or less gave Instagram the authority to sell user’s photos to third parties without the need for consent, compensation, or even notification.
Naturally, there was a major uproar surrounding this update. Instagram walked-back the changes quickly in response to the criticism of its user base. Some people think that it is not a small coincidence that this uncharacteristic move was made a few months after Facebook obtained ownership of Instagram. That being said, there is no firm evidence to indicate Instagram was pressured to make these changes by Facebook.
Slow and Strange Expansion Paths
With the backing of Facebook and the freedom to operate independently, Instagram began thriving and making improvements for it to become the app many people know it to be today.
Oddly enough, one of the improvements Instagram seemed to make only begrudgingly was expansion. The company never came out and directly said they had no interest in making Instagram more than an iOS application, but it never seemed to be a high priority for them. Whenever they did bring Instagram to more platforms, it was usually after a long time and a large amount of expressed demand from consumers. Granted, this could potentially be a result of the team being small in comparison to other social media app developers, but there are some cases where it seemed like the Instagram team was barely trying in their expansion efforts.
For example, it took about two years for them to finally bring their app onto the Android app store. Again, a small team and different operating systems can be tricky, so maybe that’s not unreasonable. However, the Android phone app was poorly optimized — the file size was enormous and it suffered frequent performance issues. These issues were not undressed until March of 2014.
Shortly after Facebook acquired Instagram, they also released a desktop client. Though, the client was severely lacking in features compared to the app version. What makes this especially strange is that it seems to be Instagram’s intention that their desktop client is just a watered-down experience when compared to the app. Taking it a step further, the desktop client would eventually receive some updates to make it aesthetically resemble the app.
Instagram then slowed their expansion onto other popular platforms to focus primarily on redesigning its image. None of these updates changed the functionality of Instagram on any of its existing clients significantly. The most substantial non-aesthetic change was that it allowed users to post pics in more aspect ratios than the original rigid square from the early builds of Instagram.
These new changes shipped out in mid-2016, around the same time that the Windows 10 version was finally released. A beta version had existed since 2013 for Windows phones but after years of pressure from Microsoft and consumers, the company finally released a full version, including the previously missing video sharing, multi-picture posts, and messaging. For context, Amazon Fire devices had an Instagram app for two years at this point. Windows computers and tablets had to wait a few extra months before an app was available on such devices.
Finally, in 2019, Instagram abandoned Windows clients altogether. It remains available on Windows devices, but only as a progressive web application.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
Perhaps the greatest thing that can be said about Instagram is that it always found a way to stay true to its original concept. Through all the iterations, redesigns, and additions, the app still feels like a social media platform focusing primarily on pictures.
One of the more iconic addition was Instagram stories. This was a way for people to post images or videos that disappeared after 24 hours. This was a response to Snapchat, one of Insta’s biggest direct competitors, but it never felt like a direct ripoff.
More recently, but a similar case was Reels. This was a feature Instagram added that let people make content similar to that found on Tik Tok. this was added in 2020 and does not seem to have taken off too well, but it is again just another icing on the cake — Instagram remains unchanged at its core.
Direct messaging services was something Instagram struggled with for a bit. It went through many iterations and became more complex as more methods of messaging people became available. Everything was consolidated into one messaging client in 2017, which continued to show improvements like the added ability to share direct website links.
Users were always able to like pictures on Instagram and eventually added the ability to do this with comments as well. Insta stands out here in that a user will not receive a notification if someone likes their comment, which many social media users find annoying. The company also decided to remove the counter for the number of likes other people’s content receives. So, users can still see how many likes they received, but no one else could. They claim this was an effort to reduce the stress and negative feelings that can be generated from seeing other content getting more likes.
One of the most recent additions to Instagram’s features is called “Co-watching.” This feature resembles screen sharing combined with video chat and allows people to view Instagram posts together in real-time without having to be near one another. This was supposedly something they planned on releasing anyway but rushed out in the face of the 2020 pandemic, saying it was part of their effort to help people stay connected in a world of social distancing.