This week, I’m focusing on the development of Instagram, a social media app that is used by many museums and other institutions to connect with the public.
Instagram was born when creators Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who were working on a multi-featured HTML check-in project in San Francisco, decided to focus the program on mobile photography. The app launched in October 2010 and had one million users by December. The app took advantage of the advancements in cameras in smart phones and allowed users to take photos, edit them, and share them with others. As of July 2011, Instagram claimed that 100 million photographs had been uploaded to the service. In January 2011, Instagram added the use of hashtags, made popular by Twitter. The hashtags allowed people to tag photos and search for others related to subjects, places, people, and events that interest them. Later that year, they also released a new version of the app with new features and high-resolution photographs. Facebook bought the small company for approximately $1 billion in 2012, and a new feature was eventually added that allowed you to instantly share your Instagram posts to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts. In 2013, the app began to include sponsored posts as the beginning of the company’s move to begin selling advertising and actually making a profit from the free service.
Instagram hasn’t been around for long, but it almost instantly became one of the most popular social media sites. Building off of the developments of previous technology and web programs, Instagram provided a service for users to easily edit photos, share them with their followers and others through tagging, and to explore and comment on the photos of others. With so many people using the app on their smartphones, it makes sense that many museums also choose the photo-sharing app to promote their museums. I searched the word “museum” and then “archives” to see what accounts I could find and how they were used. Obviously, many art museums find the visually-focused service useful for sharing works from their collections and promoting exhibits and events. I liked how many of the photos showed visitors looking at the art, highlighting the focus on the audience and their experiences. Other museums and archives used their accounts in similar ways, sharing artifacts from the collections and images from events.
For public historians, a social media site focused on photos can be very useful. Posting a photo with a quick caption is all that is needed, and different types of images can be used to engage visitors. Behind the scenes photos are a great way to be open and transparent with your audience. Many museums I saw also reposted visitor photos, allowing audiences to contribute. On the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry account, recent posts included photos of an upcoming exhibit of famous structures built out of Legos. The photos offered sneak peeks of the exhibit’s development, getting the public engaged before it even opens. Some welcomed followers to guess from close-up images what the structure would be, another example of a way to connect with the public.
Although Instagram does not include quite as many types of posts as Facebook or other sites, its simplicity contributes to its popularity and makes it a great way for cultural institutions to use the beauty of collections to engage audiences on a daily basis.