Instagram’s Obsession with Culture

Instagram’s Mark Krieger at Wired’s Business Conference in New York

At Wired’s Business Conference in New York yesterday, Wired journalist Jessie Hempel interviewed Instagram founder Mark Kreiger.

The main thing that struck me was how just interested he was in culture, which he suggested came from the fact he wasn’t the typical Stanford Computer Science major, of course went to Stanford, but instead of Computer Science, he majored in Symbolic Systems.

There are a couple of dimensions to his cultural interest; the first being the world of visual culture and art, that he clearly has a keen involvement with and the second being the culture(s) of Instagram users.

Krieger with Paglen at 7 on 7

For the former, he talked passionately about artists and photographers who use the platform and described a fun experiment he recently participated in, Rhizome’s 7 on 7 at the New Museum in New York, where he was paired up with artist Trevor Paglen to work on a project for a day. Their “experiment” involved playing with the notion of how computers “see art”.

The second element to Krieger’s interest in culture referred to the culture of Instagram users.

Looking after and cultivating the community is important to the company, one of its first hires was a Community Manager.

When Krieger worked at Meebo he was responsible for user-testing, so he got to see first hand the benefits of learning directly from this process. He clearly understands the importance of this and highlighted how company employees aren’t always a good representation of what’s happening with the product. He still gets involved with user-testing at Instagram and mentioned some recent user groups they ran with teenagers.

Instagram’s Music Channel

The company is trying very hard to understand how people are using Instagram and translating that insight into new product development, such as the recent music channel. They also feel they have important role to play in helping to surface interesting connections that could be of relevance to users.

The sheer magnitude of the task has to be daunting- a company of 90 people trying to understand the community of 300 million and its 70 million daily photos, with such an incredible subject range from images of the recent earthquake in Nepal (Nepal Photo Project),

Nepal Photo Project

and Devon Allen’s Time magazine cover from Baltimore

Devon Allen’s Time cover

through to painted fingernails.


Constantly keeping up with cultural trends via Instagram is important to Kreiger; he mentioned the emergence of #dogmom, this Mother’s Day, as an example of something he hadn’t seen before.

Kreiger also talked about the company’s connection to Facebook- how they work closely together on things like technical infrastructure, but Facebook stays away from the product.

As they move forward, the company’s biggest challenge is being able to innovate at speed, without the company getting in the way. Krieger wants to maintain the culture that allows people to build and innovate on their own, which is how Hyperlapse came into being.

Finally, back to the user, says Kreiger told the audience how he feels like a “custodian” for the product and wants to make sure the user experience is kept familiar and simple. As an example, Krieger again called out Hyperlapse, which just picked up for a Webby for best user interface, because despite a highly technical back-end, the user only had to go through 3 steps to create.

As Instagram evolves it has tremendous potential to become much more of a visual window into the world, rather than just the worlds of its users and it’s clearly on a mission to help people discover and uncover new cultures and in the process deepen their relationship with the brand.