It’s been a hell of a year for Instagram. The photo and video sharing network shipped a slew of new features and updates in 2016, many of them controversial. In March, it irked people by changing the way it displays updates in its feed, moving from purely chronological to an algorithmic ordering. In May, it set off a ruckus with a change to the familiar Instagram logo. And in August it absolutely, positively steamed the internet by rolling out a new Stories feature that obviously cloned a marquee Snapchat feature. Along the way, Instagram also released new tools to fight trolls, went big on video, added an army’s worth of advertisers, and — just last week — moved into a new office. Phew!
That's a bevy of changes for a company that was once famously deliberate — perhaps even slow — at evolving its product. But they've all had a healthy effect on Instagram. It is now sitting on 500 million monthly active users, 100 million of whom view its new Stories feature daily. According to the company’s leadership, people are spending far more time in the app both viewing and posting images. And because of that, Instagram now boasts more than half a million advertisers on its platform every month. That translates into a lot of revenue for a company that today turns 6 years old.
For Instagram's sixth birthday, BuzzFeed News sat down with founder and CEO Kevin Systrom to talk about the company's recent past and near future, and the rapid evolution it has undergone. He was upbeat — happy, even — and insistent that the changes Instagram has undertaken this year are crucial to its continued growth and relevance — even if they did provoke a backlash from users and critics.
“I think companies that fail are typically companies that look at themselves as a set of features,” Systrom said of Instagram's decision to get into video and move beyond its iconic square photo. “Companies that succeed look at themselves as mission-based companies. ... So if Instagram's mission is to make sure that everyone can capture and share the world’s moments, and use them to form stronger relationships with one another, how do you say to someone, ‘I'm sorry, you can't post that photo unless you crop it into a square and fit everyone in’? That's a ridiculous argument.”
That kind of thinking made the decision to introduce video to Instagram an easy one. Thanks to better cameras, faster networks, and more on-device storage, our video usage is rapidly increasing, and every social platform — Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat — is barreling to highlight it. Instagram is no different. But where the company's photo content is instantly recognizable and iconic, its video looks pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Systrom maintains that the videos posted to Instagram differ from those found elsewhere, but he acknowledged that Instagram's video-viewing experience isn't quite there yet.
“I agree, the video format in our viewer does feel similar to what a lot of other people are doing," Systrom said. "I think that's fine for now, but it's not where we want to end up. We want to innovate and improve the experience.”
This mission-driven approach also explains Instagram's decision to abandon its original logo (which Systrom himself designed) for a new one with a flatter, more abstracted aesthetic.
“You form your own identity over time," Systrom explained. "We wanted to make sure that people knew we were not just a camera app on your phone. We are much more than that. We are about media. We are about diversity. We are about expression. The new logo aligns with our principles — simplicity, universality, understandability. It also aligns with our mission, which is not just to be a camera company, but to be a moments company. The logo is abstracted from the physical camera. It acknowledges that we are, in fact, about moments.”
That moments line sounded a bit odd given Instagram's recent move away from a purely chronological feed. If the the company's mission is capturing and sharing moments, doesn’t it make more sense to display them as they happened? One of Instagram’s early big cultural breakthroughs, for example, was in 2011, when New York City was hit by a blizzard, and its residents relentlessly shared photos of their slogs through the snow. We as a society experience these unexpectedly serendipitous moments where we fire up Instagram and see our friends all experiencing the same things at the same time. How will people showcase and experience those moments — such as a particularly vivid sunset in Manhattan or a gorgeous rainbow stretching across San Francisco — in an algorithm-driven world?
“Nowhere in our mission is it about being real-time,” Systrom said. “I don't think we are focused on making sure you have a news feed of an unfolding event in real-time view. And I think that's okay. You should still see rainbows, generally, together — especially if they're good rainbows, in which case the best ones will rise to the top.”
According to Systrom, when Instagram rolled out its algorithmic timeline, people were missing about 70% of the images and videos in their feeds. So the company introduced tweaked things so that the 30% they do see is likely to be the stuff they care about most.
Systrom said Instagram experimented with several different versions of a ranked feed before landing on the one it rolled out and has since refined. The feed is now calibrated to prioritize the content with which people are most likely to engage. And, according to Systrom, that has driven people to spend more time on Instagram and upload more even more content to it.
“In general, feed is still a very, very real time,” Systrom observed. "We just take the last [updates] since you checked Instagram — which for most people is maybe a couple of hours — and we make sure that the best stuff's at the beginning."
But nothing else has been as controversial for Instagram as its decision to clone Snapchat Stories. Systrom consistently talks about taking problem-solving and mission-driven approaches to the company's product. In this particular case, the problem that needed solving was a simple one: getting people to post more content to Instagram more often.
“It’s pretty well-known that on Instagram you post the highlights of your day,” Systrom said. “I wish it weren't that way. I wish people felt more free to share as much as they wanted during the day.”
For Instagram, that was a troubling conundrum.
“As we dug into our user studies, I realized very quickly that we had to find a solution that made it so you didn't have to post your profile," Systrom explained. "After some tests, we added a check box that said ‘expire from my profile’ or ‘don't post to my profile.’ But no one understood why they would do that."
So in August, in an attempt to get people to post more casual kinds of content in a way they already understood, Instagram rolled out Stories. For anyone who had used Snapchat — which offers a near-identical feature of the same name — the update felt...pretty familiar! The Verge called it a “near perfect copy” of Snapchat Stories. TechCrunch described it as “a Snapchatty feature.” The New York Times said it “takes a page” from Snapchat. BuzzFeed News wrote, “It’s hard to view Instagram Stories as anything other than a direct shot at (or, less charitably, blatant rip-off of) Snapchat Stories.”
Systrom, at the time, leaned into the criticism. And he still vigorously defends Instagram's move to adopt a feature that has been for Snapchat a huge driver of engagement.
“We have a lot employees that believe passionately in ephemerality," Systrom said. "And I wanted to be sure that we were doing the right thing for the community — not just reacting to what was out there because it was cool or hip. Ephemerality had to be adopted in a way that worked. And a signal that it is working is that after just a few months, over 100 million people, daily, use Instagram Stories. So, forget about pride of authorship, internally or externally — it's working.”
Instagram is six years old today. An earlier version of this story misstated it was five.
Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.
Contact Mat Honan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.