500 likes, 150 comments on Instagram and you still want more?

A Critical Analysis of Instagram's Transformative Impact on Society

Image of iPhone with Instagram logo
Instagram's power to change the nature of social activity in society (Image: NeONBRAND, Unsplash, Unsplash Licence)

Your phone vibrates in your pocket. You pull it out of your jeans and as the screen lights up, notifications appear.  You’ve received 500 new likes and 150 comments for your Instagram post.  

You feel a sense of satisfaction as your metrics for the post starts to increase.

But you want more!

So, you reply to the comments and follow those who have liked the post to increase engagement.

Instagram, a popular photo-sharing social media platform, has started to change the way people relate socially. Throughout this critical analysis, it will become evident that the platform’s technological affordances have dynamically transformed the way people see and carry out social interactions online. It has also increased the opportunity for anti-social conversational behaviour to occur in a glamourised democratic space.

What is Instagram?

Co-founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was formed in 2010. Their vision was to provide digital users an alternative to sharing photos – one that was not physically and geographically confined to a place or within the pages of a photo album. But rather, one that was mobile and could be shared fluidly across both private and public arenas.

Photo of with Adam Mosseri (Head of Instagram)Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Co-founders)
Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, with co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Image: DEENAMIK.COM, Flickr, All Rights Reserved)

After years of improvements aimed at creating a digital space where different individuals can connect socially through photography, the platform still continues to offer a way for users to:

  • Construct public or private profiles within a bounded digital infrastructure (Hjorth & Hinton, 2013).
  • Maintain social connections with close friends, family or popular celebrities by ‘following’ these user’s profiles
  • Share personal photos, like selfies, family portraits or art, to express their identity by carefully curating and performing a or different version(s) of the self (Marwick, 2013)
  • Edit and manage their self-presentation online by offering digital tools, such as filters and stickers (Tiggemann, Hayden, Brown & Veldhuis, 2018).

In 2012, Instagram was acquired by Facebook, for approximately $1 billion USD. Since the platform is now under the umbrella of Facebook’s family of apps – Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat and WhatsApp – Mark Zuckerberg is its acting CEO. Additionally, in September 2018, both Systrom and Krieger decided to step down from their roles and as a result, Adam Mosseri is now the head of Instagram.

What inspired Instagram’s historical development?

According to Dijck (2013), the digital tools and functionalities that Instagram offers are inspired by the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0.

So, what were they exactly?

Web 2.0.

Web 2.0. was an era where many users saw the internet’s “potential to nurture connections, build communities and advance democracy” (Dijck, 2013, p. 4). This particularly can be seen in the emergence of online ‘fandoms’, which first originated in science fiction (sci-fi) culture. From writing direct messages to editors via the letter columns of sci-fi magazines to Internet Relay Chats (IRC) and Bulletin Board Systems, sci-fi enthusiasts started to form ‘virtual communities’ where they were able to foster greater levels of communication and develop personal connections with like-minded individuals within cyberspace (Coppa, 2014).

The ways in which online fandoms communicated with one another online, therefore, became the templates for modern social networking platforms (Coppa, 2014). Emphasising a “participatory culture”, Instagram is a great example of a platform acting as an interactive vehicle for networked sociality (Dijck, 2013, p.4).

Instagram promoting and encouraging a participatory culture as a form of networked publics (Image: Gian Cescon, Unsplash, Unsplash Licence)

Now

Following from this, social networking sites, like Instagram, now have embraced their new role as “networked publics” – that is, a democratic collective that has been shaped and restructured by networked technology (boyd, 2011, p. 39). However, it is important to be aware of the fact that some of these platforms have started to commodify sociality and look towards their users’ data as potential sources of profits to remain competitive in an attention economy (Dijck, 2013).

Instagram’s Business Model and Ecosystem

Like all other internet devices, services and platforms, Instagram does not operate in isolation.

Specifically, it sits in a complex and ever-changing “information ecology”, which is a system made up of entities, individuals, firms, values and people, who generate, consume, convert and recycle information – as a form of currency – with one another (Lucas, McManus & Ballay, 2012).

So, where does Instagram sit in relation to the broader information ecology?

Instagram’s Ecology

Users

Since Instagram is a consumer-driven and user-generated platform, its users are a significant node in its ecology.

There is a range of users including:

  • Ordinary users – Those who browse and post photos on Instagram on a regular basis for social purposes on their private or public accounts, such as keeping contact with close friends and family. Since Instagram operates on a “freeium pricing model”, Instagram requires users to pay with their personal information (Dwyer and Martin, 2017, p. 1085). This allows them to disguise the profitable nature of their users’ registration information, content creation and social interaction (Dwyer & Martin, 2017).
  • Microcelebrities or digital influencers E.g. @ingridnelson – It is important to acknowledge that Instagram does not merely depend on user-generated data to sustain itself as a profitable business. It also depends on digital influencers spreading positive word-of-mouth (Dijck, 2013).  As these individuals attempt to increase their popularity online by accumulating cultural and social capital, this has allowed Instagram to disguise their “ad culture” with a “recommendations culture” (Marwick & Boyd, 2011; Dijick, 2013, p. 40).

Competitors

Instagram’s direct competitors include Vero, Tumblr, Flickr, and Pinterest. All offer a very similar value proposition – that is, providing a photo-sharing platform that promotes community engagement and interaction.

Additionally, when Facebook acquired Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg (2012) exclaimed that now with its family of apps  “we believe these [platforms offer] …different experiences that ‘complement’ each other”. Despite Zuckerberg’s claims, ordinary users, microcelebrities and celebrities increasingly view apps, like Facebook and Snapchat, as competitors rather than ‘complementors’ to Instagram. This is because some of the functionalities offered by these social media platforms are identical to those found on Instagram. For instance, users are now able to send momentary ‘snaps’ to their close friends like they would on Snapchat. Hence,   users are substituting these platforms for Instagram largely due to the platform’s simplicity and visual nature (Cheung, 2018).

Businesses and Brands

Carah and Angus (2018, p. 180) exclaim that brands are “open-ended cultural processes that rely on the capacity of consumers to incorporate them into their self-narratives, everyday practices and cultural spaces”. One way of doing this is to use the virtual tools offered by Instagram, which enable users to narrate their social lives, like ‘hashtagging’. For example, the Australian retail clothing company, General Pants Co, encourages and reward consumers when they use the hashtag, #generalpants (Carah & Shaul, 2016).

Screenshot of Instagram search of #generalpants
Instagram users who have used the #generalpants to promote the brand (Image: Instagram, screenshot taken on 11.08.2018)

Therefore, many brands – especially, from the fashion industry – have started to look to Instagram as free promotional devices (Carah & Angus, 2018; Carah & Shaul, 2016). By doing this, these brands are able to harness the participatory and recommendations culture that Instagram thrives on, whilst the platform itself collects data on its users, their social networks and cultural worlds to create extremely accurate algorithmic profiles that will later be used to encourage greater levels of engagement.

Regulators

The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) states that digital influencers must “disclose, clearly and prominently, whether content has been paid for… and give genuine views on markets, businesses, goods or services”.

With this, one key area under close surveillance on Instagram is the way branded sponsorships are publicised online by digital influencers. For example, it is illegal if a hotel attempts to pay a travel/lifestyle microcelebrity to post a photo on Instagram with a caption that includes her saying she loved staying at the resort when she has never actually been or visited there (Australian Competition and Consumer Comission, 2018).

Instagram’s Transformative Effects on Society and Culture

Metrification of Social Activity

Have you ever asked yourself the following questions when you use Instagram?

  • How many followers do I have?
  • How many people have liked/commented on my new Instagram post?
  • How many of my friends have viewed my Instagram stories and highlights?

The Instagram interface is littered with different digital tools that quantify a user’s entire online identity. For example, upon opening a user’s profile they are immediately shown the number of posts the user has uploaded onto the database, the people who follow them and also those they follow.

Person holding a iPhone with Instagram profile
Metrification of social activity online via Instagram’s profile (Image: Ben Kolde, Unsplash, Unsplash Licence)

Gillespie (2016) refers to this as the “metrification [of] social activity online”. This is largely caused by the functionalities that the platforms offer, for instance, every like button found will always have a metric attached to it to indicate how many likes the post received (Bossetta, 2018).

There are three main ways that the metrification of social activity has transformed the way individuals interact and engage socially:

1. Social stratification

Through liking and commenting, users are leaving digital markers that quantify another user’s peer status and popularity (Bossetta, 2018; Tiggemann et al., 2018). Fuller (2012) argues that this has encouraged users to develop an insatiable appetite for higher numbers on Instagram. This desire, therefore, has encouraged Instagram users to socially categorised individuals into two classes – ‘popular’ and ‘unpopular’ – according to a person’s metrics.

2. An amplifier of the ‘popular’

When Instagram announced that they will be shifting from a chronological to non-chronological newsfeed in 2012, the power of algorithms in determining what users can or cannot see was heightened. These algorithms are significantly dependent upon input – that is, the metrics gathered from a user’s activity on Instagram (Gillipsie, 2016). Therefore, Instagram’s metrics not only affect users behaviourally, but it also holds a significant amount of power in translating network sociality for algorithms to easily comprehend.  Thus, allowing it to produce output – like, our newsfeeds – that reflects and amplifies shifting public taste and culture back to its users (Gillipse, 2016).

3. Increased the ‘fear of invisibility’

Due to these algorithmic newsfeeds, Bucher (2012, p. 1171) introduced the concept of the “threat of invisibility”. This is a  social anxiety that arises when online users feel that they have become irrelevant online as algorithms start to filter them out of digital spaces due to their lack of engagement.

As a response to this, many users have developed strategies to increase their photo’s likes, obtain attention and therefore receive validation (Tiggermann et al., 2018). For instance, users would upload photos at certain times of the day when they believe that their followers would be most active (Carah & Shaul, 2016; Tiggermann et al., 2018).

All of these behavioural changes to social activity has alluded to what Chambers (2011, p. 27) refers to as the “crisis of intimacy”. As individuals start to become entangled within these new social practices that the platform’s affordances have encouraged, the relationships we create online now are “digitally mediated friendships” because users are increasingly feeling threatened by the risks of non-participation and invisibility (Chambers, 2011, p. 31).

Toxic Technocultures

The acts of posting, filtering, liking and commenting ritualise the act of criticising images of bodies on Instagram (Carah & Shaul, 2016).

Specifically, Massanari (2017, p. 333)’s concept of “toxic-technocultures” highlights how internet platforms, like Instagram, do not always facilitate positive community engagement between users. It usually involves the act of “othering” those who are outside the trending mainstream culture through heavy implicit or explicit harassment (Massanari, 2017, p. 333).

An example of this can be seen in Ingrid Nilson (@ingridnilsen) Instagram post.

In August, Ingrid posted a ‘selfie’ in her activewear and publicly showed her unshaved armpit hair. She also wrote a long message expressing her thoughts on the topic of ‘hairless bodies’ and how young women feel obliged to shave their body hair to feel beautiful and socially accepted.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Ingrid Nilsen (@ingridnilsen) on

While the post itself positively encourages body confidence, after conducting a media analysis of the comments it became evident that some Instagram users left negative comments on her posts, thus instigating anti-social dialogic behaviour.

Screenshot of comments following @klakaija6767 and @eleonoracurreri towards @ingridnilson's Instagram post
Comments following @klakaija6767 and @eleonoracurreri’s anti-social conversational behaviour (Image: Instagram, screenshot taken on 7.11.2018)

So,  what measures do platforms, like Instagram, enforce to regulate, prevent and minimise toxic-technocultures from developing?

While Instagram’s Community Guidelines addresses more serious threats, its ambiguous nature provides a loophole for smaller scale anti-social dialogic attacks to occur. For instance, in Ingrid’s case, since her followers did not threaten to harm each other physically, according to the guidelines, it is only encouraged that Ingrid takes personal initiatives to  ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ and delete these comments to prevent repeat occurrences (Instagram, 2018).

Therefore, while its role is to be a type of ‘networked publics’ – providing the opportunity for users to freely post, comment, like and engage with one another – Instagram only attempt to create the “illusion of a democratising platform” (Massanari, 2017, p. 337). Thus, Instagram’s lack of commitment to effectively mediate its virtual communities illustrates how the platform has unintentionally become a digital space where anti-social conversational behaviour can occur.

Final Remarks

From the transformative effects identified earlier, it has become clear that Instagram does not merely act as a practical and functional technological program that allows individuals to share photos. Instead, given its interdependent connections with different competitors, users and regulators, it is a deeply complex platform that acts as an agent of social change. In this critical analysis, it is clear that Instagram is a cultural tool that has metrified social activity, whilst allowing toxic cultures to develop in certain online communities.

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Libbi Le
About Libbi Le 2 Articles
Hi there! I'm a second-year student, studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Arts. I major in Management, Marketing and Digital Cultures.

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