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Instagram: The Complete History, Products and Controversies Behind the Photo-Sharing App

To fully understand Instagram today, it helps to know the app‘s origins. Instagram began in 2010 as a mobile photo-sharing app, and has since grown into one of the world‘s most popular social networks with over a billion users.

This in-depth guide will explore Instagram‘s founders, exponential growth, key innovations, business model, acquisitions, controversies and more over the past decade. Read on for a comprehensive look at how Instagram has fundamentally shaped visual communication and culture.

The Inception of Instagram: From Burbn to Filtered Photos

Instagram traces its roots back to 2009 in San Francisco when Stanford graduate Kevin Systrom was working at a travel recommendation startup called Nextstop. While there, Systrom began developing a prototype for a mobile check-in app called Burbn inspired by his love of expensive bourbons and whiskeys.

The Burbn app allowed users to check-in at locations, make future plans, earn points for hanging out with friends and post pictures. It was similar to popular services like Foursquare but Systrom saw an opportunity to differentiate by focusing more on photo-sharing features.

In March 2010, a pivotal moment happened for Systrom at a Hunch event in Silicon Valley. He met and connected with investors from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz who were intrigued by Burbn‘s potential.

Within weeks, Systrom had secured $500,000 in seed funding from both firms to pursue his entrepreneurial ideas further. This initial capital would prove crucial for getting Instagram off the ground quickly.

Fellow Stanford graduate Mike Krieger was brought on as the first team member shortly after. The pair had known each other during their time at university which helped facilitate an easy partnership.

With funding secured, Krieger and Systrom reevaluated the Burbn app and decided to focus exclusively on mobile photo-sharing. They sensed immense untapped potential in creating a social media platform similar to Facebook, but differentiated by unique photo-editing tools.

After eight weeks of honing the product and design, they were ready to launch. On October 6, 2010, the new app called Instagram went live on iOS and reached 25,000 users within the first day.

By the end of the first week, Instagram hit 100,000 downloads and by mid-December 2010, one million people had signed up. The app had perfectly captured the zeitgeist around mobile photography and visual communication.


Instagram exploded in popularity right from the outset

Key Instagram Milestones: Acquisitions, Platform Expansions and Product Launches

Instagram experienced massive growth over the following years. Here are some of the most pivotal milestones:

2010-2011: Early Funding Fuels Hypergrowth

In the early days, Instagram raised several critical rounds of funding from prominent investors to accelerate growth:

  • March 2010: $500,000 seed funding secured
  • February 2011: $7 million Series A funding round
  • April 2012: $50 million in VC funding at $500 million valuation

This influx of capital enabled the fledgling company to scale up quickly. According to Instagram, they reached 1 million users in just over 2 months after launch. By the end of 2011, Instagram had 10 million registered users.

Date Users Growth
Oct. 2010 100,000
Dec. 2010 1,000,000 10x
Jan. 2011 2,000,000 2x
Sept. 2011 10,000,000 5x

April 2012: Acquired by Facebook for $1 Billion

The most transformative milestone came on April 9, 2012 when Facebook acquired Instagram for an impressive $1 billion in cash and stock.

At the time, Instagram had 30 million users and just 13 employees. But Mark Zuckerberg saw immense potential in combining forces.

The motivations behind the acquisition were twofold according to tech analysts:

  1. Gaining Instagram‘s talented team: The deal was partly an acqui-hire designed to bring skilled designers and engineers like Systrom and Krieger into Facebook.

  2. Entering mobile: It gave Facebook a gateway into the rapidly growing world of mobile apps.

Importantly, the deal allowed Instagram to operate independently within Facebook. This turned out to be a smart move, helping Instagram retain its unique identity even under the Facebook umbrella.

April 2012: Launch on Android Opens Floodgates

Expanding beyond iOS users was the next critical priority. On April 3, 2012, Instagram released an Android app just days before the Facebook deal was announced.

Previously confined to iPhones only, making Instagram available on both major mobile platforms opened the floodgates to millions of new users. It also decreased exclusivity to iOS users which had been a point of contention.

According to App Annie, within one week Instagram jumped from #863 in popularity on Android to #4 across all apps. The Android launch served as a key accelerant for Instagram‘s already stellar growth.

Date Milestone
April 3, 2012 Launched on Android
April 9, 2012 Acquired by Facebook for $1 billion
April 12, 2012 Hits #4 on Android charts

2016: Major Redesign and Live Video

In May 2016, Instagram rolled out a major redesign featuring a minimalist black-and-white theme and more advanced algorithms for presenting content.

Refreshing the app‘s look and feel was important for keeping pace with evolving design trends.

Around the same time, Instagram also launched Live Video which let users broadcast video streams in real-time that disappear after the broadcast ends.

This feature copied the success Snapchat was seeing with ephemeral live content. Instagram was determined to stay ahead of competitors.

2018: IGTV and New Leadership

IGTV launched in June 2018 as Instagram‘s standalone video hub. It enabled users to upload long-form, vertical videos up to one hour in length.

But bigger news came in September 2018 when Systrom and Krieger stunned the tech world by unexpectedly resigning from Instagram‘s leadership, reportedly over tensions around Instagram‘s autonomy.

Adam Mosseri, a longtime Facebook executive, took over as the new Head of Instagram in October 2018.

2020-Present: Shopping, Reels & More

Recent additions include:

  • Instagram Shop: Seamlessly browse and purchase products promoted by brands/creators
  • Reels: Create and share 15-60 second short videos set to music
  • Live Rooms: Go live with up to 4 people simultaneously
  • Guides: Collections of posts to highlight recommendations around topics

The platform remains committed to constant innovation. Most recently in May 2023, Instagram started allowing ads in search results.

Why Instagram Became a Phenomenon: Core Features and Capabilities

There are several key reasons why Instagram was an instant hit with mobile users:

Creative Photo Editing

Instagram offered an easy way for anyone to stylize and transform their mobile photos using fun filters and editing tools. This opened up new creative possibilities well beyond traditional social media.

The high-quality filters in particular made amateur photos instantly more artistic and compelling. As Kevin Systrom said, "Instagram was a way to make the ordinary extraordinary."

Initial Filters on Instagram
X-Pro II

Visual Discovery

Instagram made finding and exploring engaging visual content incredibly simple. The app focused squarely on social engagement through photos and videos.

You could easily discover new accounts and topics to follow based on your interests. This opened up a whole new level of visual discovery compared to traditional social networks.

Network Effects

The ability to quickly share photos and videos with vibrant communities hooked users. Instagram leveraged powerful network effects – the more users who joined, the more valuable it became.

Engagement soared as people could now publicly like, comment on and discuss photos in a centralized platform.

Date Monthly Active Users
April 2017 700 million
June 2018 1 billion
January 2019 1 billion
February 2020 1.2 billion
March 2022 2 billion

Network effects fueled Instagram‘s exponential growth in under a decade.


Posting stylized photos and interacting with them socially was incredibly intuitive on Instagram.

Compared to Facebook‘s text-heavy status updates, Instagram emphasized the power and immediacy of visual communication.

According to UX experts, "Instagram‘s features use simple interactions like double-tapping, swiping, and scrolling to make engagement seamless." Ease of use made Instagram ubiquitous.

The Masterminds Behind Instagram: Meet the Founders

Instagram was brought to life thanks to the vision of two Stanford graduates:

Kevin Systrom

The CEO and brains behind Instagram, Systrom was first inspired to combine his interests in photography and social media while on a sabbatical from Stanford in 2009.

His first major role was as an intern at Odeo where he worked with Twitter‘s Jack Dorsey. Dorsey had studied under Systrom‘s mother at Stanford and became an early advisor.

Systrom was included in Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list in 2011 and the 40 Under 40 list in 2018. He resigned from Instagram in September 2018 but his inventive spirit lives on through the app.

Mike Krieger

As Instagram‘s CTO, Krieger provided the technical skills to turn Systrom‘s idea into reality. He studied symbolic systems at Stanford and was working on personalized radio apps when Systrom recruited him to join Instagram.

Krieger led development of Instagram‘s early iOS and Android apps and award-winning API. He left Instagram along with Systrom in September 2018.

Together, Systrom and Krieger combined creative vision and top-notch programming abilities to successfully build and scale Instagram into the juggernaut it is today.

The Genius of Instagram‘s Business Model

For all of its cultural influence, Instagram‘s business model generating billions in revenue is equally impressive:

Advertising: The Bread and Butter

Sponsored posts and ads make up the bulk of Instagram‘s revenues. Brands big and small pay for visual ads targeted to relevant demographics.

Full-screen vertical ads in Stories and the Explore feed are premium placements. Instagram pulled in an estimated $28 billion in global ad revenue in 2022.

Year Est. Global Ad Revenue Growth
2019 $10 billion
2020 $15 billion 50%
2021 $23 billion 53%
2022 $28 billion 22%

Advertising represents over 90% of Meta‘s revenue from Instagram according to industry analysts.

Shopping Features Tap Ecommerce Potential

In-app shopping features let brands tag products so users can view prices or buy items without leaving Instagram. Drops allow timed product releases.

As social commerce booms, shopping capabilities help Instagram monetize its wealth of influencers and merchants. Global ecommerce via Instagram could reach $10 billion by 2023 per JP Morgan.

Subscriptions and Payouts for Creators

Instagram now allows popular influencers and artists to earn money directly from fans through subscriptions and tips. Payouts for hitting follower milestones also help top creators stay invested in the platform.

These income opportunities have fueled a boom in full-time content creators on Instagram. Over 200,000 creators currently make a living monetizing their audience on the app.

Monetization features diversify revenue while keeping creators posting fresh content that engages users. Instagram takes a cut of creator earnings in exchange for audience reach.

The Dark Side: Controversies and Criticisms

However, Instagram‘s meteoric rise has come with controversies around data privacy, mental health impacts, harassment and more:

Data Privacy Breaches

In 2021, a hacker leaked the phone numbers and emails of an estimated 300 million Instagram users that were stored in an unsecured database.

It was one of the largest data breaches in Instagram‘s history. While no passwords or financial data was exposed, it highlighted vulnerabilities around protecting user privacy.

According to cybersecurity experts, "the Instagram breach underscores the extreme data security challenges facing platforms with hundreds of millions of users."

Mental Health Concerns

Research, like an infamous 2017 study in The Atlantic, has linked Instagram usage to increased depression and anxiety in teens.

Critics argue Instagram promotes unrealistic beauty standards and social media addiction. In response, Instagram has introduced anti-bullying initiatives, restricts ads targeting minors, and lets users hide like counts. But mental health experts continue pushing for more safeguards around young users.

Hate Speech and Harassment

As a platform built around photos and videos, Instagram has also struggled with hate speech and harassment targeting marginalized groups over attributes like race, gender identity and body image.

Steps like comment disabling, keyword blocking, and DM filters help protect users. But moderating at scale remains an uphill battle according to civil rights groups who want Instagram to be more proactive in curbing abuse.

The Road Ahead: What Does the Future Hold for Instagram?

Given the relentless pace of change in tech, we can expect Instagram to continue evolving in exciting new directions:

Pivoting Hard Into Video

Instagram is aggressively pursuing video across both the main app and IGTV. Video ads and shoppable livestreams offer ripe monetization potential as Instagram challenges YouTube and TikTok.

Commerce, Commerce, Commerce

Look for enhanced native shopping capabilities turning Instagram into a mobile mall. Drops, shoppable livestreams, business profiles, and augmented reality try-ons make Instagram a commerce juggernaut.

The Rise of Creators

More tools for creators to produce premium content, connect with brands, and most importantly – monetize their audience. Instagram is betting big on creators powering the future of social media.

Controlling Your Data

As scrutiny around data privacy grows, expect controls like encrypted DMs, vanishing stories, and activity transparency so users can own their data.

International Expansion

Penetrating untapped growth markets in Asia, South America and the Middle East offers Instagram continued runway. Localized experiences are key to winning new global users.

Ten years since its founding, Instagram remains the premier platform for self-expression through photos and videos. By constantly innovating, Instagram is poised to strengthen its bonds with over a billion users worldwide for the next decade and beyond.