Launched in 2010 and sold to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, Instagram is one of the biggest Silicon Valley success stories of them all. It started, though, as a niche app aimed at the creative community, founded by programmer Kevin Systrom and interaction designer Mike Krieger.
“We always get asked how we got our first hundred, or thousand, people to join,” says Mike, talking to It’s Nice That at the London launch of the company’s partnership with artist platform Creative Debuts. “We went after a very specific type of person. We basically went through the top designers on Dribbble and sent them an email saying ‘we’ve got this app coming out, would you be interested in being a beta tester before we launch?’ So we had people like Dan Rubin and Simplebits. We knew that creative people would be a great initial audience because they have a photographic eye, even if they’re not professional photographers, and that the professional photographers would be like ‘I don’t know about square photos!’
“So from the beginning it was amazing to see not only the creative community join, but others who came along looking to them for inspiration, and to see what was possible with a mobile camera – which people hadn’t thought of being a way to create interesting photography.”
These days, Instagram is obviously mainstream, but Mike says they’re continually trying to target and encourage a core creative audience. “Now we have products like Stories, which are more expressive and playful, we can bring creatives into the product, with things like stickers.” Instagram has launched city-focused stickers or “geostickers”, commissioning local artists and illustrators to make artwork that users can add to their Stories, including creatives like Marylou Faure for London, José Antonio Roda for Madrid, and Okamura Yuta for Tokyo. It also recently released a Pride set by LGBTQ artists including Josh McKenna, Cute Brute and Rooney. “It’s a way of engaging with creatives further,” says Mike.
Another way he says the company is serving its creative users is developing how users discover other artists. “One of the things Instagram is good at is not just being about your friends, but your interests as well. So we’ve been working on the Explore tab to pull together these video channels that are grouped by artistic endeavour, such as musicians, illustrators or 3D animators. So if you’re interested in that topic we can keep surfacing it to you. There’s so many talented people out there and people interested in seeking out that talent, so we can facilitate that connection.”
In a way artists couldn’t do before social media, creatives can now curate their own gallery, in essence, one that Mike believes offers more than a physical gallery in some ways. “Your Instagram gallery is in the ether, it’s connected to other things, your hashtags, your followers, the people you follow. You can create a lattice of art and artists and make those connections.”
Instagram employs a team of people dedicated to its community, which reposts images to its own editorial channel @Instagram, which has 225 million followers, to share artistic work in any medium that “has a unique perspective on the world”. “The community team gets so excited when they find an account that doesn’t have many followers. Imagine sharing an account that has 300 followers with 225 million followers! It’s fun to watch the next day.”
So what advice would he give to artists wanting to stand out? “One thing that’s resonated with me about that community is when you learn more about the story behind the artist. It’s not necessarily just about their work, it’s the reasons behind it, and why they make art. There’s this 15-year-old girl called Annabelle, her account is @Sketchabelle, and she has chronic fatigue syndrome. She just posts her sketches and she has 60,000 followers. I met her recently and she said she had an outpouring of support when she talked about her condition. There’s a story behind the artist, and I think that personal connection is really good. In the past, yeah your personality would be relayed by your gallerist but that’s not really the same.”
That’s why Mike says he found an affinity with Creative Debuts, as artists support and give feedback to one another. “They can trade advice about life as an artist, post-university. It’s not just about the blue chip artists. Some of these young artists have more followers than the big names anyway! Instagram has democratised a lot of things, one of them being access to the art world.”
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