Instagram: the what, where, how and why of Instagram

Instagram is a new social network for sharing pictures – basically, it is like Twitter for photos but with Facebook’s like button.  It launched in October 2010 and already has over 5 million users (in only nine months).  It has had more than 100 million photos uploaded at a current rate of 860,000 per day.  Instagram is very hot and so, so cool.

It primarily exists as a free app for your iPhone and is very simple to use.  Take a photo or load one that you took earlier, apply a preset filter to give it a more stylized or retro look and then share it.  All photos are uploaded to the Instagram network but it has full social integration allowing you to also post to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr, email, etc.

Instagram is a fully-fledged, stand-alone social network and not just a Twitter client.  You create a profile.  If you like someone’s photo, you can follow them and their new photos will appear in your “feed” (like a twitter stream).  If other’s like your photos, they can follow you too.  You can tag photos with hashtags to help categorize them and comments are allowed on the photos too.

You can find new people to follow either from looking at the “Popular” feed which constantly updates with photos that have a lot of “likes”.  You can also search for photos using keywords and hashtags.  Don’t underestimate how addictive this can be.

You can upload photos as is (aka “Normal”) or you can apply filters that can make your photos look spectacular.  There are 15 filters that you can apply that change not only the colors but also add borders, scratches and other touches that liven up what may otherwise be dull or a bit flat.   There are many photo purists that hate this feature – as they believe Instagram is destroying the photos and actually taking a step backwards in photo-evolution, but personally I think it’s pretty great.

The key to Instagram’s success is two fold – first, simplicity.  Sharing photos has never been easier and the one click filters add a whole new dimension.  The second reason, is the API.  Instagram exists in only two forms currently – the iPhone app and an API.  I believe that providing the API and limiting what functionality and apps that they provide natively is actually accelerating their growth.   There are gaps in functionality – and so other people are creating sites and apps to plug those gaps.  For example, there isn’t a web interface on Instagram’s own site – but there are number of 3rd party sites such as web.stagram.com that are good if not better than what Instagram would have provided themselves.  There are also gallery and slideshow apps (both mobile and desktop) that display your Instagram feeds, services that will print your photos, and dozens of other applications being developed to support this platform. All of this within nine months of launch.

Its not just techno-consumers who are getting on the Instagram express.  Businesses, brands, celebrities and studios are all starting to realize that this is a different angle to social networking.. the visual side.  Television and film studios are starting to use Instagram in a controlled way to show “behind the scenes” experiences.  Musicians are using it to promote and document their tours.  Many businesses are experimenting with Instagram by promoting their products and services with contests and competitions.

Twitter (Google+) is great for networking and streaming textually.  You can of course share photos on Twitter.  But the Instagram experience is entirely visual.  It is a completely different dimension to the other social media tools currently being offered.  Documenting and sharing your life experiences pictorially – especially in the way that Instagram provides – is captivating and addictive.  If you haven’t already so, try it..  I think it’s going to be big.