How Instagram Works

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Instagram is a photo sharing application for smartphones that combines social networking applications with easy-to-use filters and options for personalizing the photographs you take. While there have been some heavy hitters in the world of photo-sharing sites, it's not hard to understand why Instagram ran away with the crown: It started getting big right at the time that the standard for phone cameras began to equal or outpace the quality of regular digital cameras. And now you can't get through your Facebook feed without scrolling past a half-dozen artsy photographs of breakfast food. Thanks, Instagram!

Imagine photography as recently as 15 years ago: Put film in the camera, snap the shots, have them developed, and then find a way to scan and upload them to an online collection or social-networking site. Each part of this process was upgraded over time, as film and camera makers tried to keep up with the times. But between phone camera improvements and the Web 2.0 move toward integration of sites, apps and gadgets, an empty niche was created for one-step uploading apps that would be easy to use -- and quick!


Suddenly, the usefulness of a second gadget for taking pictures was decreased. At the same time, the fact that high-quality photography was integrated with uploading it instantly to a social site meant you could skip several steps that had recently been mandatory. Add to that the cleverness of the app's filter system -- in which photographs can be edited and doctored in a variety of easy-to-understand ways before uploading -- and what was once a time-consuming hobby becomes a nearly instantaneous, simple activity.

After six months on the iPhone, Instagram had reached 5 million users and had gained a huge amount of cultural buzz. A follow up release for Android built on that popularity, and it reached 1 million users on the first day and 5 million before the week was out [sources: Ionescu, Kessler]. (As of August 2012, plans were still in motion to bring the app to Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, iPad and other OS and appliances [source: Instagram].)

Purists will always have their digital, or even film, cameras. But for the rest of us -- as we can see, based on the incredible success of Instagram -- the ease of taking and sharing high-quality photos has revolutionized the way we preserve and share the memories we treasure most. In this article, we'll look how Instagram works and explore its success in greater detail.


Setting Up an Instagram Account

After downloading the free Instagram app to your phone and linking it to your social networking sites of choice, such as Facebook and Twitter, you'll need to check on your settings. Remember, when you find that perfect moment and want to share it, you won't want to spend time fussing around with the basics, so think hard about the times and circumstances you're most likely to use the app.

In the main photo screen, there are three main toggle options immediately accessible from single buttons: front/rear camera, portrait/landscape setup and various flash options. You'll be changing these often, depending on your location and proximity to your subject, which is why they're available on the main interface.


One setting to consider, here, is whether you want to be "Public" -- the default -- or a "Private" user. If you choose the latter, you'll be asked every time you OK a shot whether or not you want it on your public feed. You can also choose how you'd like to be notified, Facebook-style, whenever people react to your feed.

Whether or not you are a public user, you can still connect to and follow other users. There are search options available to find your friends automatically on the service, via interest keywords (for example, "knitting"), your Facebook or Twitter lists, your phone's contacts, and even popular users the app will suggest for you itself.

Finally, Instagram is committed to joining location-based apps like Foursquare, Yelp and Facebook Places, so you'll need to decide whether you want your pictures to appear automatically on a map of your exploits as you upload them -- or even just for certain users. Everyone's privacy needs are different in the online world of today, but Instagram has options for everybody.


Using the Instagram App

The Instagram opening screen on iPhone
Screencap by HowStuffWorks staff

The Home screen keeps up a running feed of your friends' pictures, with options to comment or "favorite" them, similar to your Tumblr or Flickr feed. You can also branch out to look at other pictures from a given user, change your relationship settings, or see what else they've got going on.

The Explore screen (a compass rose) shows you a range of public photos from all over Instagram, in tiny icons rather than full-screen pictures. This is a fun place to start, jumping from one interesting photo and user to another, following the things that strike your fancy.


The News screen (represented by a heart symbol in a word balloon) shows you all the activity of the users you follow: photos they've liked, new feeds they are following, and things like that. You can follow these out, similar to a Facebook Timeline on the mobile app, to see if it's something you'd be into. This is the screen where Instagram's social networking takes place, if you're interested in being a part of that community, and also where you monitor your followers and messages.

The Profile screen (look for the text-message box symbol on the bottom far-right) is the place for changing your settings, profile, looking at your photos and downloading them to your phone, and checking out your photo map. Nuts and bolts, as well as several intuitive menus, make this the most fun screen to play with when you're not actively taking photos or perusing your News stream.

Once you hit "click" on the main screen, you'll have the option to filter the shot, delete it, or automatically upload it to your public or private feed. It is at this point that the connections you made to your other networking services kick in: While the image itself is preserved in the Instagram cloud for later use, the service also sends a one-time push-through of the image to the sites and applications you've specified. Your profile on the app itself -- that is, on your smartphone -- saves your logins and passwords for those sites you've approved, and so the push will seem automatic.

Of course, if there's a breakdown between your phone and the third-party site or app, or in the servers themselves, or if you've changed your password in the interim, you might run into a few complications. It's best to try a few test shots once you've updated your Instagram profile to include those connections, so that you can see how it looks once those images are pushed. If a setting is off, you could have size or orientation issues when it publishes to your other accounts. If Instagram has trouble automatically publishing to a specific network, double-check your logins and passwords to make sure you've set all the app permissions and connections correctly.


Taking Photos: To filter, or not to filter?

While the point-and-click nature of a smartphone's camera is a huge part of Instagram's popularity, there are also some built-in attractions that give it that extra appeal. Some of the filters have even become clichés, since they're so appealing that people use them obsessively. Others are more passive, and simply enhance the photos you're taking. There have always been "special effects" available for digital photographs, but Instagram takes these to a whole level.

Now, it's become something of a good-natured joke about Instagram users and those filters that everybody thinks they're an artist the second they download the app, but there's a little truth behind it -- and regardless, everybody's doing it anyway. The thing to remember is that part of living in a post-analog world is that the effects of analog production still contain meaning.


What does that mean? Well, think about the scratchy sound of a vinyl record -- or the faded photographs in your parents' old photo albums. Those effects are artifacts of the way those things were physically produced, but they're also part of the way we experience them. Those State Fair pictures where you put on a fancy hat and pretend to be in the "olden days" -- they're invariably in a sepia tone, right? You'd look pretty silly, wouldn't you, if those photos were digital and perfect? Or what about the "lens flare" effect in movies like Star Trek?

They're effects that mean something other -- something more -- than simply being physical remnants of a physical process. It's the same thing with Instagram: Adding a photo-aging filter, or a crazy light effect, is simply adding to the language of the photo, it's another dimension of the memory you're capturing. A sunny day at the beach has power for you, because it's your memory that's preserved: But smart use of a filter on that picture can help evoke the same feelings in another person who sees the picture, even though they weren't there.


Other Instagram Tricks and Hints

Facebook acquired Instagram in mid-2012.

Since Instagram caches your feed's photos in the cloud, just as most phone image apps, you may need to download them for offline access, such as on a computer that's disconnected from the Internet or to look at on your phone during a flight. The service makes this easy, but only for your own photos -- and by uploading photos automatically (or semi-automatically) to your Facebook Timeline, you'll have them available there as well.

But the usual social networks aren't the only sites with special uses and connectivity with Instagram. Postagram is a downloadable app that turns your Instagram photos into real postcards that the service will mail for you, for about a dollar. Instamap is a paid app that creates an extended version of the Photo Map display in Instagram, including the ability to explore your Photo Map on the iPad. Wordfoto combines your words and photos into fairly beautiful works of art. And if the available third-party apps don't do it for you, there's always the Instagram API (application programming interface), which -- true to the company's mission statement -- is available for your use in developing applications yourself.


Thanks to that open-source capability, applications -- both free and paid -- will continue to come out and be upgraded as long as Instagram's the biggest deal in photo sharing. And that could be a long time, considering that in mid-2012, Facebook itself acquired the company for nearly 1 billion dollars. Most techies called this a Microsoft-style move to conquer the competition, which makes sense, considering how much emphasis Facebook puts on integrating pictures -- including location- and date-stamps -- with its Timeline concept.

On the other hand, it's best to work with the best code and products, and even in a profit bubble, Instagram would've seemed like a sure thing. Considering most of us use Instagram and Facebook in tandem now anyway -- and users continue to rise at meteoric rates -- it just seems like a natural pairing. As long as the acquisition doesn't change the service noticeably -- which, by August 2012, it hadn't -- it's doubtful you'll see any changes to Instagram on your end, beyond a simplified interface between the two services or possibly (thanks to the influx of cash) more options and filters to experiment with.

What's for certain is that until some bright young innovator finds a way to exploit our habits and excitement about documenting and sharing our worlds in an even better or more novel way, or makes it easier somehow to translate a moment into an online experience, we'll all keep using Instagram. Between its popularity and this recent influx of cash, this app is likely here for the long haul.


Author's Note

I've never been one of those people who thinks to document moments -- whether it's taking pictures or video or what have you -- when they're happening. For some of us, maybe it's a fear of being "that guy," but for me it's more a matter of attention span. Anything that makes capturing and sharing memories easier, then, I'm grateful to explore, and I'm happy to say that in the process of learning about the app for this article, I've become a bit of a diehard user myself!

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More Great Links


  • Fast Company. "The 100 Most Creative People In Business, 2011." Fast Company. 2011. (Aug. 8, 2012)
  • Frommer, Dan. "Why Facebook's $1 Billion Instagram Deal Is Brilliant." SplatF. April 9, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2012)
  • Graham, Jefferson. "Instagram is magnet for start-ups." USA Today. Aug. 7, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2012)
  • Ionescu, Daniel. "Instagram's Android app tops 5 million downloads." PC World New Zealand. April 2012. (Aug. 10, 2012)
  • Isaac, Mike. "Exclusive: Facebook Deal Nets Instagram CEO $400 Million." Wired. April 9, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2012)
  • Malik, Om. "Here is why Facebook bought Instagram." GigaOm Blog. April 9, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2012)
  • Sengupta, Somini, Perlroth, Nicole and Wortham, Jenna. "Behind Instagram's Success, Networking the Old Way." The New York Times. April 13, 2012. (Aug. 9, 2012)