instagram book cover

This is the first book-length examination of Instagram. Over the course of its seven chapters, we critically examine the platform and its policies, its content and aesthetics, its economies and ecologies, and various cultural practices and uses of Instagram. The book draws together ideas and findings from various datasets and perspectives, including ethnographic work with influencers, studies of birth, death, and identity creation, visual social media, politics and crises, Instagram research methods and ethics, and cultural practices and communities.

We examine how the platform has developed, from its history to how its users have appropriated and responded to the platform and its affordances for their own practices. Our approach serves to situate Instagram within the wider social, mobile, and visual context, and to provide a much-needed, in-depth examination of global content and cultures on the platform. Rather than focusing on only one particular group of users or national context, our analysis looks beyond countries like the US or Australia. This allows us to bring forth additional perspectives and uses of Instagram, which are not the same the world over. By examining Instagram in this way, with chapters dedicated to particular aspects of the platform and its uses, the book will also be an ideal resource for units and courses into digital and social media, whether covering Instagram specifically or broader topics within this field.

Publishing December 2019 (Australia), January 2020 (World) by Polity Press.
Polity | Wiley
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CHAPTER ONE: Politics (of the platform)

In this first chapter, to contextualize and provide a foundation for understanding Instagram from its various backends — technical, cultural, and economic – we provide an overview of the emergence and many iterations Instagram has undergone, suggesting several ways we can understand these changes. In purely technical terms, Instagram began as an app (with no web version or interface) only available for Apple devices, at a time when there were dozens of photography apps appearing daily. From those relatively humble beginnings in 2010, Instagram has gone on to have, in 2017, 800 million active users, 500 million of whom use the app every day. Instagram, over time, has come to support video, to introduce the square frame only to then make other frames available years later. Instagram has created their own suite of related apps which were initially external (Hyperlapse, Boomerang, and Layout) only to then reincorporate these into the app’s internal layout just as 24-hour self-deleting stories and messaging was introduced (in direct competition with Snapchat). At the same time, the textual and conversational elements have been expanded, adding the ability to reply to comments, making them more social but also combating spam and online hatred by giving users more tools to block users, block comments and specific keywords in comments as well as (separately) specifying who can’t see stories (rather than specifying who can). The politics of Instagram as a platform are many, and this first chapter maps the contours if not the depth of these facets, situating both the platform itself, and the deeper explorations in the following chapters.

CHAPTER TWO: Aesthetics

This chapter explores the content, practices, and users of Instagram, covering different aspects of Instagram aesthetics. Three key ideas are featured here: visual aesthetics, including genres and tropes of content and visual normalization; user practices and norms; and audiences and motivations for Instagram use. The analysis and discussion in this chapter leads into ideas developed further in later chapters, including Instagram economies. In addition, the chapter concludes by reflecting on how the Instagram aesthetic (if there even is one singular aesthetic promoted by the platform, let alone perceived by users) does not happen in a vacuum: planned and unintended uses develop out of multiple contexts, including the visual and the mobile, which directly leads into the subsequent chapter on the Instagram ecology.


This chapter examines Instagram as part of an extended ecology of visual and mobile media and apps, both part of Instagram’s own brand and its rivals. Instagram is positioned within the wider context of visual social media, including memes, GIFs, emoji, and selfies: forms which can be found on Instagram, but which did not originate there. The platform is also placed in a continuum of web-based services for personal photography and image-sharing, such as Flickr. The final contextual element for the Instagram ecology, that of mobile media, then considers related app and mobile-related developments, from camphones to locative media such as foursquare, which have contributed to Instagram’s development and popularity.


In this chapter, we will discuss the creation of Influencers on Instagram, the specificities of microcelebrity culture and Influencer practices on Instagram in distinct to other popular social media (i.e. blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat), the circulation of abstract value on Instagram and how this translates to monetary value, the dominant principles governing the economics of Instagram including advertising guidelines, best practices, and the cultural repertoire of advertorials, and some of the recent controversies in relation to monetizing Instagram (i.e. astroturfing, authenticity exposés, Influencer wars).


As iterated in chapter four, Influencers are a dominant commercial culture on Instagram and form a significant population on the platform. However, there are several other types of communities and cultures on Instagram that proliferate on the app. Some of these groups may be organized around the public repository of hashtags, the more complex networks of mutual ‘followers’ and ‘followings’, or interest groups that are not otherwise so easily accessed by visible affordances and metrics and require a level of in-group knowledge. Regardless, these have visually recognizable cultural repertoires, unique paralanguages, and self-referential practices. In this chapter, we take a look at three distinct communities of culture on Instagram through case studies.

CHAPTER SIX: Lifespans

Instagram provides a space for sharing social moments across the entire lifespan, not just documenting the active moments from Instagram account holders, but also the lives of other people that they photograph, share, celebrate, document and narrate. Visual social media applications document human lives from the cradle to the grave, and it’s the ends of life – birth and death – which are the focus of this chapter. Drawing on a significant quantitative and quantitative Instagram data captured from 2014 to 2016, this chapter uses two longitudinal datasets – collated by tracking and downloading content that used the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags – to explore both the way Instagram volume and use has changed over time as well as the specific practices around pre-birth, as seen in the way that ultrasound photos circulate on Instagram, and at the other end of life, using the way that social visualization practices around death and mourning are captured via images and videos posted publicly with the funeral hashtag.

CHAPTER SEVEN: Materialities

The final chapter then explores Instagram content and aesthetics made material: on-brand and off-platform applications of Instagram, such as services providing Instagram prints, merchandise, and the physical spaces designed to house ‘perfect’ Instagram curation experiences. The physical realization of Instagram and content is again not possible within the app itself, yet has developed through the extended Instagram ecology.

This page was last updated on 16 July 2019.

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