A startup no longer, Instagram boasts 700 million monthly active users and counting. As it grows, the free, photo-sharing mobile app is grappling with how to innovate and stay relevant, as well as how to foster a safe community. But with 95 million uploads a day, monitoring is a tall order. Judy Woodruff reports from California.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Next: the rapid rise of one of the world’s biggest social media networks, Instagram.
It’s building up steam, with 700 million people now using it each month, and it just took four months to pick up its latest 100 million new accounts.
But along the way, the company has faced concerns over how it can be used, and even some criticism for the way it essentially copied ideas from its rival, Snapchat.
Judy Woodruff recently got an inside look during her trip to Silicon Valley.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the first things that greets you inside Instagram is, no surprise, a place to take pictures. The free photo-sharing mobile app was born in 2010 with its first post, a foot in a flip-flop alongside a stray dog.
Turns out it was taken in Mexico by co-founder Kevin Systrom.
KEVIN SYSTROM, CEO and Co-Founder, Instagram: It’s a mixture of teams. So, we have got design teams, we have got partnership teams, we have got a community team, and then a bunch of engineers. We don’t really have an organization.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Systrom showed us around Instagram’s new offices in Menlo Park, California, designed to accommodate an ever-expanding staff.
You moved here six months ago; is that right?
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes, six months ago, we moved from the original campus. And we designed this entire experience inside here to be cleaner, and a little bit more Instagrammy. So we have got the hip wood walls, and the polished concrete floors. It’s very start-uppy, but it’s in an Instagram way.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A start-up no longer, Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for a cool billion dollars. Then, the company had 13 employees. Now it has more than 600 to keep up with a rapidly growing user base, 700 million monthly active users and counting, 80 percent of them outside the United States.
How do you explain the phenomenal, rapid growth of this?
KEVIN SYSTROM: On Instagram, very early on, you would post an image, and anyone anywhere in the world could see that image, and understand what you were trying to say without speaking your language.
So, we like to say that Instagram was one of the first truly international networks in the world. And I think that’s what’s allowed it to scale to the hundreds of millions of people that use it every day today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It still is a pretty extraordinary growth rate, isn’t it?
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, even with that rational explanation, it’s hard for people to understand how it happened.
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes. You know, back in the day, if you started a company, you would have to rent a warehouse, you would have to hire a bunch of employees. But, you know, with very, very few people sitting here in this building today, we’re able to scale it to hundreds of millions of people around the world, because of the innovations that we are built up upon.
And that’s the cool thing about running a company today, is how many people you can touch how quickly.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For a company founded on images, the walls here are adorned with some of the best, culled from Instagram users around the world.
KEVIN SYSTROM: Well, not to invoke the common saying, but a picture is worth 1,000 words. And that’s kind of like the phrase that this company is built on. It’s just something that’s unlike traditional texts and traditional media. And I think it allows you to see a different side of people, maybe a more raw and human emotional side of people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Celebrities have embraced the app. Singer Selena Gomez has the most followers, more than 118 million. And Beyonce has the distinction of having the most-liked image in the history of Instagram, 10.9 million and climbing, for this photo that announced she’s pregnant with twins.
For teens, the quest for more and more likes and followers, plus the pressure for perfection as portrayed by some mega-popular users, is raising concerns among parents. Not only body image, but also bullying have become issues for some younger users.
And Instagram is grappling with how to foster a safe community, free from abusive behavior.
So, when you started Instagram seven years ago in 2010, did you have any idea you were going to be spending time, a lot of time now, thinking about protecting the people who use it?
KEVIN SYSTROM: No, I would say, every day at Instagram is not only the most complicated day of my career, but also the most interesting.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you prepare yourself for this kind of responsibility? I mean, what are you, 32 years old?
KEVIN SYSTROM: Thirty-three.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty-three.
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All of 33.
That’s a lot of responsibility, isn’t it?
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes.
And there are a lot of parents here at Instagram who think deeply about a world in which their children are going to grow up online, and what kind of product they want to create, and what kind of legacy they want to leave.
I don’t yet have kids, but in a world where I do have kids, I want to make sure that the world they grow up in is one that is safe online, and that Instagram led the way to create that world.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But with 95 million uploads a day, monitoring is a tall order. New guidelines are aimed at blurring out questionable material before the user even sees it, with a screen labeled “sensitive content.”
There’s also a reporting function for content about self-harm or suicide. Systrom says the company’s work is far from over.
KEVIN SYSTROM: This is a constant process. This is about making sure that we continue to evolve the way we attack the problem. This isn’t about getting to an eventual future where it is absolutely gone.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that we can’t make real progress on it, and, more importantly, show the leadership that I think our company can and should, so that other tech companies do as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The pressure in Silicon Valley to lead, innovate and stay relevant is intense. And Instagram has come under criticism for its outright and successful copying of rival Snapchat’s video stories feature
Instagram Stories, you have openly said was copied, in effect, from Snapchat. Is that what happened?
KEVIN SYSTROM: The way things work in Silicon Valley is that companies will think up ideas, and, if they’re good, they will stick. And, often, they spread to other companies. And if we can learn from other companies that do it really well, we’re going to continue to do that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Advertising on the app is also growing and reaping rewards. There are one million active advertisers, a 400 percent increase from last year.
How have you changed your advertising philosophy over time?
KEVIN SYSTROM: Yes, there were two major changes, I think, to our advertising philosophy over time. The first was just to have advertising at all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Period.
KEVIN SYSTROM: That was a big one. But we always knew we were going to be a business, and that’s how we were going to be a business, was advertising.
The second shift was going from a world where we had a small number of advertisers doing very refined ads to now, where we have many, many millions of advertisers on Facebook able to buy Instagram ads.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We ended where we began, in front of Instagram’s wall of photo-ops, where Systrom shares credit for how far the company has come.
KEVIN SYSTROM: It was the right time, it was the right idea, and then it was the right team. You need a lot of things to go well to get to this point. So I feel very lucky.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The business practices and decisions made by Instagram and, much more broadly, by Facebook are increasingly under scrutiny. We will have a closer look at that issue later this week.
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