Happy birthday, Instagram!

Last week Instagram turned five years old, so we’re taking a look back at some of its more notable moments and how it’s evolved since 2010. We’ll also discuss how the platform has grown into one of the largest and most important social networks, how brands have found their place there, and what might be next for Instagram.

Growing up

Instagram first launched on October 6, 2010, and by December of that same year it had 1 million users. The hashtags Instagram is so well-known for now weren’t introduced until January of 2011, and their original purpose remains the same: To help users share and discover their photos with one another (spammers be damned). By June of 2011, Instagram was up to 5 million users, and a launch of version 2.0 (with many of the filters and other features we know and love today) doubled that number to 10 million by the end of September.

If you’ve ever wondered about the history of #TBT (Throwback Thursday), wonder no longer: It was in use on Instagram in late 2011, but its popularity really took off in 2012 when more celebrities and influencers began participating. You may also remember 2012 as the year Instagram joined the Facebook family, and users grew to 30 million. This is also when the Explore tab and web profiles were launched, but Instagram took a hit in popularity with miscommunication around their new TOS (terms of service) in December of that year. Users interpreted it to mean Instagram would allow their photos to be sold and reused without their permission, but Instagram listened to user concerns and clarified their intentions to build a business model that matched the current user experience.

In 2013 Instagram added video capabilities- contributing to the video content marketing heyday of today- and direct messaging, as well as its first ads in the US. 2014 saw users at 300 million, and this year saw the end of the reign of the tyranny of the square, as well as a jump to 400 million users.

Brands on Instagram

Michael Kors was the first brand to advertise on Instagram in 2013, working to create photos that fit the feel of the app and didn’t intrude on user experience. Since then, brands across industries have increased their presence on the platform and experimented with different forms of advertising: Directly through Instagram, by sponsoring the posts of key influencers in their industry or partnering with them in campaigns, or simply running accounts that share the kind of content their Instagram audience is interested in while also letting them know where they can buy what they see.

Instagram doesn’t have a direct buy button (yet?), but there are workarounds such as Like It To Know It (can be found with the #liketkit) for brands and personal brands interested in directly monetizing their posts.

Like It To Know It
An example of a personal brand- A-List blogger Alyssa Campanella- using Like It To Know It.

Most brands, however, use Instagram to connect with users in a way that feels natural for the platform. People use it, first and foremost, to share beautiful, memorable images of their lives. Brands have to find a way to fit in with that in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive. Users reward those who have figured out how to do this in a way that seems effortless and natural- like Lauren Conrad- and will quickly unfollow a brand that seems jarring, needy or too salesy.

Instagram now

While Instagram’s features have evolved quite a bit over the past five years, it has remained the same at its core: A place for users to share their lives and passions with each other, visually. In the coming years we expect users and brands will find new ways to express themselves through its lens.

Ultimately, Instagram’s success lies in listening to its users and adapting with them, rather than trying to force an unnatural direction. That’s a good recipe for longevity no matter your industry.