I is for Instagram: How one app changed the way young people see the world

From influencers to mental health to mobile-only platforms, Instagram has changed the world's youth.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Can you guys help me pick a filter? / I don't know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia / I wanna look tan / What should my caption be? / I want it to be clever / How about ‘Living with my bitches, LIV’ / I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes / Do you think I should take it down?

Let me take another selfie” 

So goes the iconic chorus of “#SELFIE” by the Chainsmokers – the January 2014 hit that became an unavoidable EDM banger. The song was the culmination of a cultural phenomenon building for four years, the first to spin art out of the names of in-app choices and build a music video based entirely off the back of people’s posts on social media. “#SELFIE” was undeniably so explosive because it was the first cultural piece to meme-ify Instagram: one of the biggest factors in changing our social culture in the entire 2010s. 

Instagram launched on 6 October 2010 to Apple users only, and was subsequently released to Android devices in April 2012. That same month, Facebook bought Instagram and one month later user numbers hit 50 million (by the end of 2015 it had over 500 million). Nearly ten years on, it is its own industry, a form of social currency, a perceived moral demon and the anchor for most of our discourse about women, young people, and celebrities.

Instagram was one of the first apps built to be used exclusively on a smartphone, shifting our digital focus away from big, expensive, cumbersome connections to the internet to carrying devices connected to the entire world in our pocket. Suddenly, brands were taking glossy, professional photos on a DSLR, editing them in Photoshop, and then sending them to an iPhone to be uploaded the only way possible: on mobile. 

While Instagram may not have launched until 2010, the internet was long ripe for what it would become by 2020. Hot women had learned the art of the selfie thanks to Facebook and normal people had learned how to create a brand thanks to YouTube. The Kardashians’ potential for social media stardom had been brewing for years (Instagram’s greatest success story) and matriarch Kris Jenner immediately grasped this app that would help her daughters permeate not just reality TV viewers, but anyone with smartphone access. Instagram amplified what we consider as a celebrity, from A-list actors to anyone with more than twenty thousand followers, and advertisers and brands funnelled every penny into capitalising on them. It gave rise to the likes of Caroline Calloway, Love Island stars, and influencers as a household term, and with them the rise in the promotion of dodgy products like diet suppressants and flat tummy teas. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on

The most liked picture on Instagram from May 2015-March 2016

A relatively niche platform at the start, it went mainstream overnight: by the end of 2012 it was a daily staple for anyone under the age of 20. Thanks to its popularity among young people, it soon came to be the scapegoat (rightly or wrongly) for all issues surrounding low self-esteem and mental health problems among teens.

Now, in 2019, Instagram is trying to remake its image. It removed the “Following” tab ostensibly over privacy concerns (although many people, myself included, lamented its loss) and just a few months ago it began to roll out hiding users’ like counts under the guise of “improving mental health” (with like counts being a long-held standard of popularity). While we may not know what Instagram will look like in ten years time, it feels safe to say that at least the first half of the 2020s will continue to be dominated by Insta-discourse. And it feels even more likely, with one billion monthly active users, that Instagram’s empire will continue to reign.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

Free trial CSS