On 6 October, 2010 I read a TechCrunch article about a new photo sharing app für the iPhone, called Instagram. Back then, the general excitement about new mobile apps was still pretty big, because lots of “app territory” was still unexploited. Which is why I immediately downloaded Instagram and took my first shot. A photo that from today’s perspective looks quite horrible. Since I was just on a 6 month long stay in Thailand, I kept using Instagram to occasionally capture my impressions. However, to say that I immediately was hooked would have been an exaggeration. And if somebody would have told me back then that Instagram would become an enduring growth magnet that could even replace Facebook’s news feed for some, I would not have believed it.
But so it happened. Today Facebook-owned Instagram has more than 300 million active users. A recent survey conducted by Pew Research shows significant growth of Instagram usage among U.S. users. If one only looks at young adults aged 18-29, 53 % use Instagram. User engagement is intense, with 49 % of all Instagram users reporting daily activity. Unlike Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter that were able to grow as well over the past 2 years, only Instagram experiences significant growth in almost every demographic group. Facebook on the other hand was not able to grow its U.S. audience in 2014 compared to 2012. Also, according to Pew, there are more Facebook users this year who also use Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn than there were in 2013. In other words: Facebook has to share user attention with competing apps more today than in the past.
To me one of the most fascinating aspect of Instagram’s rise is the fact that the photo and video sharing app is to some extent taking over the role as main social news feed – something that Facebook has been owning for basically 8 years. There are numerous reports and anecdotes about young user’s lack of excitement and interest in Facebook. Those correlate heavily with the increased popularity of Instagram. In a widely shared article titled “A Teenager’s View on Social Media”, one paragraph stated: “Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group. Please note the verbiage there – it is the most used social media outlet. Meaning, although the most people are on Facebook, we actually post stuff on Instagram.”
Facebook is slowly turning into the address book for every web user, whereas the actually one-to-many sharing of personal experiences increasingly happens on Instagram. And as I mentioned in my recent post about the unexpected changes in the social networking landscape, in my own contact network there are people who have completely abandoned Facebook – but who are heavily active on Instagram. These people are different from the hobby photographers, social media celebrities and personal branding aficionados, because they often set their Instagram profile to private. They use Instagram not like Twitter but more like Facebook – just without all the links, spam and boring text updates.
Looking at where Instagram is today is especially remarkable considering how simple Instagram still is. The company has added a couple of new features such as video sharing, direct messaging, new filters and overall usability improvements. But at its core, Instagram today is working the same way as the Instagram of 2010. It looks as this simplicity, focus and “conservatism” is one of its core strengths. It is only a guess, but users of the desktop Internet era might have grown tired of the constant changes in usability, functionality and structure of their most used social networks. Instagram as well as a host of other successful social apps on mobile abstained from the approach of regular relaunches and feature-additions. Partly possibly out of necessity – on smartphones with their comparatively small screens, options for fundamental redesigns are more limited – but likely also based on the realization that users are happy with a certain degree of “stability”.
On big question is how long Instagram can continue that way. Will the app eventually reach a user penetration similar to the one Facebook achieved and even replace Facebook for a broad number of people outside of the teenage demographic? Or is the concept of stream-based photo and video-sharing as a means of communication only appealing to some?! The Pew report signals that the latter is not the case. And as a matter of fact, Instagram is easier to understand than most other social services. If one just finds a couple of friends or people with shared interest on the service and owns a smartphone, the barriers of entry are minimal. With more than 300 million active users and a market condition in which the smartphone is turning into the main and default smart device in ever more countries, the external preconditions are ideal.
Instagram has proven that photos (and videos) can be a well-working instrument for personal communication between people. It has managed to integrate various potential use cases in one app without causing the confusion about the app’s actual purpose that Twitter has been suffering from over its period of existence.
Based on all these factors and factoring in Facebook’s careful (but likely successful) monetization efforts, one has to conclude that Instagram’s best days are still ahead.