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Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures

Instagram is at the heart of global digital culture, having made selfies, filters and square frames an inescapable part of everyday life since it was launched in 2010. In the first book-length examination of Instagram, Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin trace how this quintessential mobile photography app has developed as a platform and a culture. They consider aspects such as the new visual social media aesthetics, the rise of Influencers and new visual economies, and the complex politics of the platform as well as examining how Instagram’s users change their use of the platform over me and respond to evolving features. The book highlights the different ways Instagram is used by subcultural groups around the world, and how museums, restaurants and public spaces are striving to be ‘Insta-worthy’. Far from just capturing milestones and moments, the authors argue that Instagram has altered the ways people communicate and share, while also creating new approaches to marketing, advertising, politics and the design of spaces and venues. Rich with grounded examples from across the world, from birth pictures to selfies at funerals, Instagram is essential reading for students and scholars of media and communication.

Published 22 January 2020 in hardback, paperback, and e-book.
Polity | WileyGoogle Books
ISBN: 9781509534388 / 9781509534395 / 9781509534401

Preview | Flyer (Aus) | Acknowledgements
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“In this wonderfully rich, thoughtful and entertaining book, three leading scholars have given us a detailed account of Instagram’s history, culture and politics, as well as much-needed conceptual tools to understand the increasingly visual world of social media.”
–Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

“This book brings together three accomplished scholars of visual internet culture to provide a comprehensive overview of Instagram as a platform, culture and marketplace. This will be an essential reference for internet studies and visual studies.”
–Jill Walker Rettberg, University of Bergen

“Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures is a seminal book in a growing field of academia which enables readers to analyse the social, visual and cultural changes in our daily lives conceptually. The choice of platform, Instagram, is valuable as the authors remark that ‘the attention economy is primarily visual today, and Instagram remains synonymous with the visual zeitgeist’ (216). While the book is an academic study that examines a popular culture topic, it is highly descriptive rather than based on critical theory. Students, scholars, social media practitioners and platform users can benefit from the book as a great introduction to how to approach and study social media.”
–LSE Review of Books

“Equipped wth compelling arguments, relevant examples and visual aids, the book is supported by integral research from key Instagram scholars as well as the authors themselves, thus acting as a repository for significant enquires into the platform and its uses… [the book] contributes a wealth of knowledge to social media research, particularly to the hitherto under-researched Instagram.”
–Mobile Media & Communication

“With examples from around the world, through the authors’ own research, and the presentation of case studies this book succeeds in bringing together a wide variety of topics and debates concerning Instagram, giving the reader an impressive insight into how Instagram has influenced the material world and how we live, behave, communicate, and share today. In conclusion, the book provides an original contribution into how Instagram has evolved into a visual communication platform that has become a part of everyday life.”

“Leaver, Highfield, and Abidin’s book tackles a timely and complex topic with precision and clarity. An essential overview of Instagram as a far-reaching, multifunctional platform, the authors deftly map out the ways in which Instagram permeates our daily lives. By providing engaging examples throughout the book, the authors give life to their arguments while leaving room for readers to consider important questions for themselves.”
–International Journal of Communication


  • Reviewed in Media, Culture & Society (Online first), 2022. <Link>
  • Reviewed in International Journal of Communication 16(2022). <Link>
  • Reviewed in Communications 46(4), 2021. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Information, Communication & Society (Online first), 2021. <Link>
  • Reviewed in New Media & Society 23(9), 2021. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Communication Research and Practice 7(2), 2021. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Visual Anthropology 34(3), 2021. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Networking Knowledge 13(1), 2020. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Communications, 18 September 2020. <Link>
  • Reviewed in Mobile Media & Communication 8(3), 4 September 2020. <Link>
  • Blurbed in ICA Visual Communication Studies, 2020. <Link>
  • Reviewed in LSE Review of Books, 8 April 2020. <Link>


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 03 March 2022.