On Oct 6 2010, a new photo-sharing application was officially released through Apple’s App Store. By the end of its first day, it had 25,000 users. Ten years on, that number is more than a billion. Instagram has changed the world and how we see it: millions of images celebrate people living their best lives, sharing shots of glacier lakes, views from half-unzipped tents on mountains and smashed avocado on toast (these and other visual clichés are wonderfully collated on the account @insta_repeat).
In her absorbing book, No Filter, Bloomberg News reporter Sarah Frier charts how an app that started as a creative outlet for photographers and creatives ended up influencing the very art they produce. “We use it to curate the story of our lives, but that’s made us all a bit more performative,” she says on the phone from California. “Ten years ago, people weren’t thinking about their best angles, or the visual implications of where they chose to go on holiday.”
Everyone has seen the value placed on visual experiences increase, whether or not they even use Instagram, says Frier. You might not have an IG account, but you will have visited restaurants that seem to care just as much about how the food looks on a plate as how it tastes. “The impact goes beyond walking down the street and seeing people taking photos in front of colourful things. It’s really infused into what we value as a society,” says Frier. “How Instagram rewards the kind of content that it likes has affected human behaviour.”
Instagram shapes how we behave because we see the world differently now, and whether or not something is potentially instagrammable affects the choices we make about what to do and buy and wear.
Terms like “hashtag”, “selfie”, “infinite scroll” and “no filter”, have moved into common parlance. Meanwhile, those first carefully considered grids of static square images have expanded to include a plethora of “Stories” and most recently “Reels”, as the app evolves to compete with newer rivals such as Snapchat and TikTok.
There have been controversies too; a crisis of mental health among young people who feel the pressure to portray perfection, the invasion of remote beauty spots, the dangers of posting death-defying selfies, and the rise of “Instafamous” wannabes buying their followers. Instagram has not been immune to the scandal of social media’s role in influencing democratic votes, such as the US election. And the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has urged social media users to re-evaluate whether they should have accounts on platforms such as Instagram at all.
Yet for all the very reasonable criticism, it remains a popular and important tool for breaking down barriers, connecting people across the globe and allowing them to create and expand their own businesses and friendship communities. Thanks to Instagram, you don’t have to worry about whether your art is being displayed in a gallery, you can go ahead and post it in your own virtual one.
And while it may have started with a target audience of 18-34, slowly that, too, has shifted, especially in the past few years. In 2015, just 13 per cent of users were aged between 35 and 44, compared with 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2018.
Last week, Sir David Attenborough broke Jennifer Aniston’s record for the fastest time to reach a million followers on Instagram. The 94-year-old naturalist’s follower count raced to seven figures in four hours and 44 minutes. In his first video, the veteran broadcaster told followers: “I am making this move and exploring this new way of communication to me because, as we all know, the world is in trouble.”
As his message highlights, the way in which we use the platform has never been more important. Fail to establish boundaries and you might lose whole evenings in a mindless scroll, but engage actively and it can change your life and the lives of others.
Yuki Honjo-Archer did just that in lockdown. The 40-year-old prop designer saw her freelance work disappear overnight, so she spent her time making reusable face masks, creating a brand called Niji on Instagram (@niji.facemask). The success of her fledgling business supported her and her husband throughout lockdown. “It was a saviour,” she says.
Not just that, but she says the way each mask was sold, through direct messaging, provoking an actual conversation rather than a simple transaction, “felt really nice in these hard months where there’s been little connection to the outside world. It’s been really heartwarming.”
Whatever your interests, Instagram and its filing system of hashtags can open up the world and connect you with like-minded people. It is a mirror that works both ways. It’s up to you how you choose to look into it.
‘Right now, with social distancing, it’s helped me to connect with other people’
Vanessa Kimbell, 48, Northamptonshire @vanessakimbell, 48,900 @sourdoughschool, 75,000 @sourdoughclub, 165,000 followers
Sourdough is an Instagram obsession. For Vanessa Kimball, it’s a community that she has nurtured just like a starter.
Kimbell was already a name on the foodie scene when she started her account, however Instagram has given her a way to connect deeply with those who follow her.
“If you want it to be it can be a very lovely place to be,” she says.
“And right now with social distancing it’s even more important. Instagram is a window to connecting to other people, it’s an important tool for mental health.”
Her three accounts are subtly different; the more personal, the detailed sourdough geek, and the simple sourdough. She recognises that people have become very selective about whom and what they follow. In the early days, she could easily pick up 300 followers in an afternoon with a picture, but “Now you have to work hard for people to feel you’re worth their time.”
In return for the hard work, she has a platform to spread her message about making bread that is baked to nourish. “They call you influencers, and yes that is my intention, to influence. I don’t think I’d be as influential as I am without it.”
‘I’ve resigned from my job to be a full-time artist, which has been my dream since I was a child’
Sharon Walters, 45, London @london_artist1, 7,400 followers
After finishing her degree in Fine Art at Central St Martins in 2011, Sharon Walters lacked the confidence to pursue a career as an artist. Then three years ago, becalmed by a running injury, she started making and posting photos of her artwork on Instagram; collages using images from glossy magazines that explored identity, beauty standards and race. What she discovered was a supportive community that encouraged her to make even more work. She also discovered models for her work and friends with whom she’s formed IRL bonds with, and received large commissions.
A month ago, Walters resigned from her job at a local history museum she’d worked at for the past four years to become a full-time artist. “I feel as if I’m on a high. I’ve always wanted to be an artist; it’s been my dream since I was a child.”
She’s started working with a gallery, although she still sells most of her art herself, saying: “I feel as if I know how to market myself.”
Pieces from her series “Seeing Ourselves” are on show at the National Maritime Museum and she credits her Instagram account with giving her opportunities she would never have otherwise, such as appearing on Judi Love’s show on BBC Radio London.
Her only problem with Instagram is that she spends too much time on it. “But I now justify it because I earn a living by being seen on Instagram.”
‘I always check myself if I find I am doing anything just to satisfy a dopamine craving’
Ed Smith, 38, London @rocketandsquash, 56,300 followers
The food writer Ed Smith regularly deletes the app from his phone, worried about the time it sucks up and how it’s affected his attention span.
Yet he knows professionally he can’t afford to leave the platform altogether.
In 2012, he left his job as a corporate lawyer and went to do a chef’s course at Westminster Kingsway. While there, he documented his progress on Instagram.
While he says he’s always used the platform “organically”, being naturally inclined to capture and share what he cooks and eats, and see what others are cooking too, it’s become fully intertwined and intrinsic to his career.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about the number of ‘likes’ and follower growth. But I always check myself if I find I am getting too bothered by that, or doing anything just to satisfy a dopamine craving.”
He knows he could be more influential if he posted different types image – “More of ‘me’ rather than just the food, but I don’t want to only be an instagrammer and can’t afford the time that it takes to create content and constantly engage.”
While he knows people can grow a platform incredibly quickly, gaining the kind of following that he has, and many times more, in just a few months, he’s reluctant to put all his eggs in one basket.
“You never know, Instagram could easily implode as a moneymaking platform as quickly as it became one. I want my food writing career to be long term, and to be ultimately independent of something like Instagram.”
Smith’s next cookbook Crave: Recipes arranged by flavour, to suit your mood and appetite will be published on May 13 (Quadrille)
‘Marcel is first and foremost a family member, not a moneymaker’
Aurelie Four and Pierre Schaeffer, late 30s, London @lecorgi, 139,000 followers
Every time Aurelie Four receives a message saying, ‘I’ve just got a puppy, how long until I get famous?’ She replies sarcastically: ‘Give it another 48 hours’.”
Her corgi, Marcel, might be a star, but Four recently became the head of influence of animal talent agency Urban Paws UK because she wanted to use her knowledge to steer the nascent industry in the right direction.
“There are people now taking on pets simply to make money from them. Or using fraudulent ways to grow their following,” she says.
Friends thought it was a rash decision when, three and a half years ago, Four left her job in market research to go full-time on her pet corgi’s account.
Today, Marcel, aka @lecorgi, is an Instagram star. Four and her husband Pierre Schaeffer (@pierre.le.chef) have seen social media content creation become a hugely important part of their lives.
The couple, however, are keen to bust any misconceptions about the money to be made: during lockdown, Schaeffer had to take a job in a supermarket to make ends meet. “People assume that we’re making a living without working, but that’s not true,” says Four.
She tries not to allow “likes” to dictate her feelings of self-worth, and feels strongly about the issue of mental health and the impact that trolling can have, but largely the positives outweigh the negatives.
Marcel is first and foremost a family member. If he’s not up for having his photo taken, the camera is put away. It’s part of the reason that she feels it’s important to have a job that is independent of the account.
With an eye to the future, she says: “I don’t want to feel like I need to push Marcel because he’s my main income.”
‘I want people to see a mature lady in Prada. It feels more real’
Renia Jazdzyk, 55, Newcastle @venswifestyle, 94,500 followers
It’s not just her curly bob that makes her stand out to the paparazzi at Paris and London fashion weeks. As an over-50s style blogger, Renia Jazdzyk, who describes herself as a fashion creative and ageism fighter, cuts a rare, albeit very stylish, figure. The fashion outsider started her Instagram account only four years ago. Originally from Poland, she moved to the North East of England 15 years ago with her husband, a consultant anaesthetist, and their children.
“It was my husband and my daughter who gave me the idea that I should start an Instagram for mature ladies’ style. And it’s grown ever since.”
Her following means she now gets offered paid collaborations with brands such as Barbour.
“We’re opening up to the idea of older people being in adverts. I like opening a magazine and seeing a mature lady in Prada; it feels more real. I want to see people who’s actually buying the clothes in the adverts.”
Instagram has helped open doors, including to fashion weeks. If it wasn’t for the platform, she says, “I would be taking care of my children and working a bit. But now, I feel more satisfied. It’s an adventure. It’s been absolutely amazing.”
‘It’s allowed me to be more creative, a little braver and find my voice in midlife’
Jo Moseley, 55, North Yorkshire @healthyhappy50, 5,900 followers
Jo Moseley laughs at the idea that her Instagram might be about capturing perfect moments. “I see a lot of paddleboarding pictures, and mine are not like most,” says the first woman to SUP (stand-up paddleboard) from coast to coast. “I’m showing that you can still get a huge amount of joy and still be completely imperfect.”
Moseley says: “You can be in a thunderstorm, on your paddleboard, full of litter you’ve collected, but having the time of your life.”
She started posting in 2012 and the feed has become a diary of her midlife rediscovery of adventure.
“It’s allowed me to be more creative, braver and find my voice. I’m a single mum and my son has just gone back to uni, so this has been a way to find my joy and purpose in midlife.”
She hasn’t given up her day job, but her life is richer. “Without it, I don’t think I’d be teaching Aquafit, I wouldn’t have paddleboarded across the country. I wouldn’t be a brand ambassador for outdoor companies, or giving talks at the WI. And I wouldn’t have raised the money I’ve raised for charity.”
She’s seen her followers increase in the past few months, despite not changing her content. “You consistently share and then suddenly there’s a tipping point,” she says. “In lockdown, people are paddleboarding and thinking about things like plastic, and it’s struck a chord.”
It’s not all plain sailing, with Moseley saying tellingly: “I’ve been lucky and not had lots of trolling.”
She also gets lots of messages from younger women saying that following her makes them feel less scared about getting old. “I want to show that we can change and pivot and grow, right up until we die.”
‘My side hustle turned into something that was making more money than my corporate job’
Julie Taylor, 38 @londonispink, 87,900 followers
When Julie Taylor moved to London from Washington DC seven years ago, along with her husband and baby son, it was the middle of winter. Depressed and lonely, she walked around the city. Every time she saw a pink house, it made her smile, so she took a photo. She built up a collection and decided to start an Instagram account. And she swiftly found that other people loved the joy and levity of her pretty posts.
She no longer works in sustainable development, instead making a living from her account through brand partnerships, an Etsy shop, and digital consultancy.
“For my mental health, I couldn’t carry on with two careers,” says Taylor. “I had this side hustle that really wasn’t a side hustle any more. It had turned into something that was making more money than my job, which is insane.”
Now she is free to use her platform to pursue her passions in photography, as well as highlighting issues around sustainability.
‘It’s a second job, but it’s allowed me to do what I love’
Florian Gadsby, 28, London @floriangadsby, 335,000 followers
As a 16-year-old, Florian Gadsby recalls being told at a ceramics fair by an older potter not to pursue a career as one. “At the time, I guess that was realistic,” says Gadsby.
Thanks to Instagram, he has his own studio, he’s had exhibitions and been named one of London’s 1,000 most influential people. Most importantly: “It’s allowed me to do what I love; without it, I know I would have had a much more difficult time.” Other potter friends he says don’t use it, and struggle.
Even so, Gadsby says: “I use it an insane amount compared to others.”
The platform is a business tool; he doesn’t post anything outside of the ceramics world. However, he hasn’t missed a day posting since April 2014. He calls himself a slave to the algorithm; “Those apps like it when you’re posting everyday.”
It’s also a second job – taking two hours of his evening to reply to comments and edit the day’s videos and pictures. He has about 80,000-plus photos and a lot of hard drives.
“There are definitely days when I’m tired of it, but it’s a force of habit. There are days when I resent it, but then I think about the positive things it’s done and realise that I’d be stupid not to.”
‘The granny thing is big – there are lots of people my age and older making and taking beautiful pictures’
Harriet North, 57, Herefordshire @yomargey, 30,800 followers
When Harriet North started her Instagram in 2015, she thought it best not to mention her age. “I assumed it wasn’t for older people.” Now she knows better. “The granny thing is big,” she says. “There are lots of people my age and older making and taking beautiful pictures.”
North, who posts photos of her greenhouse and her Jack Russell, Bullet, has seen her following grow thanks to being “regrammed” by larger accounts. In particular, her knolling, the process of arranging objects so they are at 90-degree angles from each other, then photographing them from above.
She’s chosen not to monetise her account; she measures her success by the friendships she has made and the creativity it has afforded her.
The mother of four feels it is a haven. “It’s a good space for an introvert to come out of themselves and let their photography to allow them to be who they want to be,” she says.
She doesn’t enjoy some of the “navel-gazing”. And its time-consuming nature means she takes a week off from the platform from time to time.
“Sometimes I think I’ll stop, because it does take up a lot of time; it can be like going down a rabbit hole. But I know if I left I would miss taking my pictures, and I’ve made lifelong friends.”
‘I’ve reached more people than I ever could have done without Instagram’
Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, 42, Gloucestershire @sabrunsmiles, 2,250 followers
Four years ago, Sabrina Pace-Humphreys wound-up her PR company to become a running coach. She didn’t start Instagramming until a year later, and at first just followed the usual celebrities. But then she discovered that people were interested in her content on health and fitness with a message of empowerment and managing mental health through ultra running.
Now the mother of four and grandmother of two’s life is totally different. “It’s beautiful, challenging, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she says.
After the BLM protests, she co-founded Black Trail Runners – a community and campaigning group aimed at getting more black people on the trails. She was also filmed talking about her experience of rural racism at a local BLM protest, which went viral thanks to Instagram.
“I’ve reached more people around the world than I ever could have without Instagram, in terms of the activism I’m doing.
“It also allows me to be noticed by big global brands. Ten years ago, you’d have had to have written and posted lots of letters asking for sponsorship, and just hoped that someone got back to you.”