Instagram: #Data to #Knowledge

Vintage pre-set photo filters, traditionally square format photos, amateur food photography, endless selfies–it’s hard to imagine a world without Instagram. It has revolutionized the way we share photos and videos.

What started as a photo sharing app “has become the home for visual storytelling for everyone from celebrities, newsrooms and brands, to teens, musicians and anyone with a creative passion.”

As of November 2017, Instagram has more than 800 million active monthly users. Over 500 million of whom are active daily according to the statistics on Instagram’s site. Since it was launched in October 2010, more than 40 billion photos and videos have been shared through the platform.

So how did Instagram become the top photo sharing platform and multi-billion-dollar company as we know it today?

An almost deceptively simple interface built with scalability in mind and a so-easy-anyone-can-do-it user flow.

Uploading a photo — Early user flow. Source:


At the core, Instagram is based upon user-contributed photos. Users create a profile, choose a username, and have the option to add a bio or connect a website. By opening the camera page users have the option of taking a photo directly in the app or uploading from their camera roll. Then they have the option of adding a filter from a variety of pre-set selections, a popular feature that made everyone feel like a professional photographer. Before posting a user has the option of contributing more data connected to their photo: a caption, location, option to share to other social media sites like Facebook.

Additional data collected: date posted, likes and comments after posting.


Structurally, Instagram organizes the data collected with simplicity in mind. The photo is at the forefront. Initially photos were only able to be posted in a square format for optimized viewing on a phone and to make for a pleasing reiterative pattern as a user scrolls through their feed. (In 2015, they made changes to allow landscape and portrait photos due to demand.)

In the top left corner would be the username and a small circular profile photo of the user who posted the photo with the location in a lighter weight font below. Then immediately below the photo are actionable items — a heart to “like” the photo, an add comment button, a send directly option, and a “save to collections” feature. How many likes a photo receives is above the poster’s caption, which is interesting and perhaps feeds into egos and drives interaction. The caption stands out through use of a non-bolded font. At the bottom of the data hierarchy are the comments, they’re not a focal point of Instagram. Users need to click on the “View all # comments” to read them and often used to simply “tag” other users to check out a post. And one step further down the ladder is the date posted (very small, lighter font, below all content). The date posted is least important for a user to know because Instagram organizes photos in a feed for the user. It started out as a chronological feed but as it grew, Instagram organized photos based on user interactions with other accounts.

Instagram was an insta-hit. People loved sharing moments of their lives with the attractive filters and interactions as simple as a double-tap. Within hours of launching, Instagram had gained 25,000 users. And just two months later, that number rose to 1 million.


With the exponential growth, Instagram needed a way to organize the flood of data coming in. Hence, the #hashtag.

Hashtags were introduced three months after launch and allowed users to engage with the app more. They were now able to search, explore, and interact with other posts and users based on a hashtag.

Hashtags help organize and categorize photos and video content, which aids the process of content discovery and optimization

The introduction of hashtags provided not only a way to increase user engagement, but also a way for Instagram to collect more data and structure the photos feed more efficiently. They were able to introduce a “Top Posts” and “Most Recent” feature in the explore page.


Throughout the years Instagram has collected a wealth of data and has evolved to keep up. A simple, modular design has allowed them to evolve seamlessly. Over time, Instagram has been able to add and subtract features based on user usage data. They once had a photo mapping feature that captured exactly where each photo was posted, but removed it after experiencing little use. Mapping photos proved to not be widely used by users and Instagram decided to shift their priorities towards their core model: photos and social sharing. From the beginning, the priority of Instagram has been to bring a community “simple yet powerful tools that let people capture moments and express their creativity.

To enhance their hold on photography, Instagram continuously add updates and new features to the photo editing capabilities within the app and introduced add-on apps like Boomerang, Hyperlapse, and Layout. Making these apps separate from the body of Instagram allowed for expansion of the brand without overwhelming the app.

Boomerang: Turns everyday moments into a fun and unexpected video made from a burst of photos stitched together. These fun short videos took story telling to a new level.

Hyperlapse: Gave users the ability to capture time lapse videos complete with stabilization technology.

Layout: Allowed for the combination of several photos into one image with flexibility and artistic control.

These apps allowed every user to feel like a photographer with simple apps that alluded to what could only be done by professionals with expensive equipment before.

With photos as the core data, social sharing is the main action. To leverage their position as one of the most popular social media apps, Instagram began to further establish their ties to the idea of community and communication.

They introduced direct messaging and most recently, Instagram stories.

Instagram stories have the same idea as Snapchat. They are photos or videos that are posted to your profile, found unobtrusively at the top of the screen or through a user’s profile picture, and last for only 24 hours. Stories allowed users to constantly interact with the app without over posting. They also have a variety of enticing features that make it easy to add creativity to any post. There’s a variety of drawing and text options, geo-stickers, fun themed stickers, as well as the ability to input hashtags and even ask a question to take a poll. Filters also became available.

Stories have proven to increase the amount of time people spend on Instagram to more than 32 minutes a day for those under 25 and more than 24 minutes a day for those older than 25. Over 250 million users are uploading content to their Instagram story every single day, which ultimately puts Snapchat to shame.

Through the variety of additions and updates over the years, Instagram has blown up in to a powerful tool. They are able to collect endless data on how users are interacting with the app and use that information towards making actionable.


What to do with all of this information? Instagram has grown enough in many different directions to make their data more actionable.

Hashtags have now become categorized. There are branded hashtags, community hashtags, event hashtags; all things that make it easier for a user to filter through the app’s content.

Wedding hashtags have become a popular phenomenon. They allow for a creative, collaborative, and easily accessible real-time album of the events related to the special occasion.

Branded hashtags were only the start but proved to contribute to the development of business profiles and enhance connection for e-commerce. They are “one of the driving forces behind some of today’s best marketing campaigns.” Branded hashtags can be simply the name of a company, product, a trademarked tagline, or be something more creative. They spread awareness and increase engagement. Branded hashtags have led to the further development of business profiles on Instagram. Ads were also eventually introduced.

People come to Instagram to be inspired and discover things they care about, and that includes content from brands and businesses.

Instagram has become a proven way to grow a business. To start, brands can ground themselves in a certain aesthetic and begin to develop a personality. Growing their follower base increases brand awareness and can directly lead to increased sales. Shopping through Instagram has become a new experience. It could potentially be as easy as seeing an image you like, tapping it for information, then tapping again to bring you to a link to buy something. Some clothing stores have started to have a “Shop Instagram” page on their website dedicated to the attractive, styled images posted to their accounts.

Having a profile and collecting business analytics also helps companies discover consumer insights. They can learn to better understand their target audience and strategize on how to create meaningful content to drive behavior and even, to some extent, measure that success.


Instagram has become a tool that we can learn a lot from and has provided an opportunity to give a voice and personality to both people and brands.

The influence and impact of Instagram will continue to grow and eventually we’ll be able to learn even more from the app.

Instagram algorithms measure engagement, time spent viewing posts, regularly engaged accounts, timeliness of a post, content type, search history, and probably more. Through this, the app is able to predict behavior and offer recommendations on content a user may like through the explore page.

Perhaps eventually, we’ll be able to see a photo—based off of recent searches and web activity—that inspires us to take action. And Instagram may have the capability to allow that action directly through the app. Let’s say you’re interested in traveling to Italy and have been doing some preliminary research but haven’t quite decided on anything yet. Using your search history data, Instagram leads you to some travel sites and Italian locations with enticing photos that motivate you to act. What if you were able to book a vacation or make reservations somewhere directly through the app? Or perhaps you’ve been shopping for a new coat, Instagram recommends the same or similar coats through the explore page styled in certain ways that convince you to buy it and you could do so directly through the app. Instagram has the potential to drive e-commerce in a new direction. Forget the catalogue pages of online stores’ inventory or confusing travel site pages. Instagram’s photos are posted by users, real people you could trust, and allow you see yourself somewhere or in something in a different, more relatable, way. Instagram’s ability to inspire and relate garners trust that could encourage real action. Instantly.