There is no doubt that Instagram has seismically altered the cultural landscape over the last decade, but the landscape of Instagram itself has also shifted dramatically at the same time. Since the app debuted exactly 10 years ago, it has transformed from a digital scrapbook of (often questionably filtered) photos into a gargantuan force of discourse, activism, marketing, and monetization. In that sense, not only has it changed culture, it has also changed lives–for better and for worse–jumpstarting careers, providing a platform for new ideas, and birthing the age of the personal brand.
As part of Man Repeller’s examination of the 2010s this month, five people who have been impacted by Instagram in different ways, both personally and professionally, reflect on a post shared the first year they joined the app, and how their relationship with Instagram has evolved since (spoiler alert: I’m one of them). Scroll below to read what we have to say, and feel free to share your own in the comments.
Nell is the founder of Hill House Home.
June 20, 2012
When Man Repeller prompted me to look back at one of my earliest Instagrams, I had the distinct feeling that I was a middle schooler being called to detention by the principal. I guess I’ve been walking around KNOWING the atrocities of my early instagram feed, but sort of willfully ignoring them. I always knew there would be a reckoning. I just didn’t think it would be on a public platform….
On June 20, 2012, I posted a photo of a half-eaten muffin on top of a report called “US Fixed Income Weekly.” It makes me cringe on about 34 different levels. I was deep in existential 22-year-old panic about my life choices, and particularly my choice to work in finance. I didn’t want to be defined by my job, but I didn’t have the time or energy for much else. We received these reports on our desks every week, and the first time I saw one I remember highlighting half the words on the first page with a note to “look up definition later.”
By June 2012, I had finally started absorbing some of the language, and I think I wanted to show off my knowledge of finance buzzwords with this post. At the same time, I took every possible opportunity to show that I had interests outside of work. One of these interests, apparently, was muffins. I remember posting this and thinking it was premium content. A report about global inflation! On Instagram! Covered in sprinkles! I’m so quirky. I contain multitudes!
My favorite part about the post, though, is the caption. I wrote, “Placemat,” and then tagged two co-workers. I am 100% certain that neither of these co-workers had any involvement in either the eating of the muffin or the taking of the photo. So I must have just tagged them in a sort-of last ditch effort to mask my own self-consciousness. A safety net. Hope you like my photo, but just in case you don’t, here’s a vague reference to a potential inside joke and/or hidden meaning. There was no inside joke. This post received 8 likes.
In 2012, even the very posting of an Instagram felt niche at my job. I was the resident millennial on my desk, and I remember being very smug about it. This was my first job out of college, and even though I loved my team, I knew pretty quickly that it was not the right fit for me. Most days, I cried on the subway home. I was so nervous and insecure at work that for the first six months, I literally did not bring a coat to the office because I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask where the coat closet was. I was desperate to be taken seriously, and desperate to prove my worth. I wanted to keep on “achieving” the same way I had in high school and college, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an alien every time I sat down at my desk. It was a dark time.
On top of that, I was wearing baggy, ill-fitting suits and almost no makeup. I quite literally never let my hair down. I straightened my curls into submission and wore my long hair in an uncomfortable bun most days. This was particularly difficult for me because fashion is an integral part of my self-expression. I’ve always loved glitter and bows and hair-accessories and heels, but I worried that no one would take me seriously if I dressed the way I wanted to. I faulted myself for not outgrowing the traditional trappings of archetypal girlhood. By “toning myself down,” though, I ended up feeling like I was hiding my true self. I used to joke that I wore a “finance Nell” costume every day.
I look back on my social media posts from these days and can so clearly see how trapped I felt. I was basically shouting through the screen, “I am more than this!” In the years that followed, social media became a real outlet for me. I quit my job not long after the muffin post and went to business school so I could transition into the startup world. Now I wear the weirdest stuff. I basically can’t go to an important meeting without a cat-eye and a hair bow. For the majority of the past decade, Instagram is where I have felt free to share my strange, glittery shoes, and my odd jokes, and to get into an hourlong DM conversation with a stranger at 3 a.m. because we’re both up feeding newborn babies. I’ve grown up with Instagram, and I’m so relieved to say that who I am on the app today is a real representation of who I am at my core. I don’t share half-eaten muffins anymore. But mostly because I hate muffins. I always have. I prefer bagels.
Margaret is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer.
June 23, 2012
I was late to the Instagram game. Not Jennifer-Aniston-late. Not even Kanye-West-late. Just millennial-late. By the time I graduated from high school, all the girls in our Class of 2010 had divided themselves into iPhone 4 and Blackberry Bold 9000 camps. All except our one Korean international student (who had a Samsung and a stylus) and me. We knew not of the joys of Angry Birds and BBM, but she had an app that generated airbrushed sticker photos like the ones at the game arcade in Chinatown. And I had a Phil Collins ring tone.
But that summer, I got a retail job and grew tired of having to find a 7-Eleven with a $20-dollar bill every time I ran out of texting credit. I could choose an iPhone plan or a Blackberry plan, said the grad student at Vodafone. What would it be? Angry Birds or BBM?
For the next two years I touch-typed so hard and fast on my Blackberry Bold that the left corner of my right thumbnail got infected twice. I preached the sermon of BBM until my then-boyfriend got an iPad 2 for his birthday, and his brother’s now-wife told us that Instagram’s filters were better than Hipstamatic’s. Valencia was her favorite.
For the inaugural stamp of my Instagram existence, I elected to publish a scan of a film photograph that I’d downloaded from a Facebook album and emailed to my boyfriend’s iPad to publish with a daisy emoji. The day after our high school graduation, my friends and I had walked down to the shops and split the $20-dollars needed for a Cherry Coca-Cola and a disposable Kodak camera. I accidentally dropped the latter and ran over it with my brother’s Yu-Gi-Oh! skateboard. It leaked light for the rest of the roll on which my friends captured my galaxy-print one-piece and self-cut Levi’s before I skated too hard and fast down Heartbreak Hill and scraped half the skin off my elbow. Two weeks later, we got this print back from Big W (a discount department store chain in Australia). It went on to become a Tumblr meme about people who think they can skate.
Elliot is the founder of Jerry Media.
January 7, 2014
I was scrolling through Tumblr one day and bam, this image popped up on my feed. It sparked an emotion–a palpable feeling of nostalgic fun. I knew I recognized it, but I wasn’t sure from what. All it took was a little reverse google image search and then…aha! The cup. The cup I drank Coca Cola out of at an amusement park when I was a kid at my friend’s birthday party, washing down enthusiastic bites of pizza.
I posted it on Instagram, and it was clear that it resonated with many others as well (this was a lot of likes for the account at the time), so I made it the account avatar… little did I know it would ultimately become synonymous with the Fuck Jerry brand. Back then, I was literally just posting pictures to create a kind of digital mood board, like architecture, design, cars, vintage sports photos, and vintage cars. The account wasn’t comedy-based at all, but I’d post something funny here and there and I noticed the engagement was a lot higher, so that’s how the content started leaning in the direction of what it is today.
I still do all the posting on @fuckjerry myself. It’s become like my baby, where it’s so tied to me personally, and I don’t feel like I trust someone else’s ability to execute on it in the same way. That being said, the Fuck Jerry brand has never been my personal brand, which was an intentional choice. I always thought it strategically made more sense to keep it that way as the company grew, partly because I don’t like the limelight at all, and partly because I wanted it to be able to operate apart from me.
It’s surreal to think about how the account has evolved. I started it when I was 18 years old because I hated college and wanted to find a creative outlet. Influencer marketing obviously wasn’t a term that existed then, but it still seemed pretty obvious to me that if you built a following on this thing called Instagram, you could leverage it to do all sorts of things. I enjoyed it, though. It was a hobby. Even if it never grew, I’d probably still be doing it today.
It’s definitely been a roller coaster ride–a lot of ups, a lot of downs. But I think that comes with the territory, especially in a changing business where we’re one of the biggest accounts doing what we do. We’re kind of paving the way for others in that sense, which means there have been lots of learning experiences along the way as internet culture has evolved. When memes first became popular, they were generated for the express purpose of going viral–of being re-shared again and again and again–and ownership wasn’t something that people paid a lot of attention to, but there was a tipping point when that changed, and authorship became really important. We were the first account to start tracking memes to their original source on Twitter and crediting the creators. Now we take it another step further and always ask for consent before posting, or in some cases pay for it.
The pressure of running such a large account that grew into a business has affected me in so many ways, obviously, both good and bad. I’m constantly stressing out about making sure there’s content, making sure that I’m doing the right thing, and making sure that I’m running the company properly. It’s a tricky thing to navigate–being the innovator in this category is what got us a following, but it also exposes us to a certain degree of flack. At the end of the day, though, I’m so grateful for the opportunity it’s brought–to bring people together through the always entertaining and often absurd experience of being human in the digital age. And it all started with a cup.
Katie is the founder of “The 12ish Style” and Megababe.
May 17, 2015
This was the first photo I ever posted on my account. It’s actually from a Man Repeller story. I’d met Leandra and Amelia at a photo shoot for NARS, and they were like, “Let’s do a fashion feature on plus-size dressing!” I had never been in front of the camera before, so I was super uncomfortable, and I remember Amelia was jumping up and down in the corner trying to lighten me up because I was so stiff and nervous. When the feature went live and I read all the comments from women who were excited to see a body shaped like mine on a blog, it was the first time since I started working in fashion at age 20 that I actually believed there was nothing wrong with my body.
I decided to start an Instagram account based on that experience, and Glamour picked it up and wrote a little story about how I launched this new platform for curvy dressing (it’s crazy to think about how even just five years later, that language feels dated). It took off after that–within a year, I had my first collaboration with Eloquii. I think the message resonated really quickly because there was no one else in the space taking risks with fashion like layering, print mixing, interesting tucks, etc, at my size.
It took me a long time to get used to being photographed. I didn’t know how to take a selfie, and I didn’t know how to get my angles right. I was still so vulnerable to outside opinion, but connecting with other women who made it clear how necessary it was for this kind of platform to exist was extremely motivating. Now that my account has more of a following, I do occasionally get messages from trolls like, “You look like you ate Meghan Markle,” but at this point, when I see that kind of thing, I just start chuckling. It’s really mean, but it can’t hurt me anymore because I know who I am now. My self-worth is no longer dependent on the opinion of a stranger on the internet.
I have a really positive relationship with Instagram as a result, because it’s been a true catalyst for not only changing the way I see myself but also forging countless opportunities to connect with other women. I have a 95% female following, and I don’t take it for granted that my inbox is flooded daily with an outpouring of gratitude and support. It’s surreal to me that the account started off simply as a place to discover clothes in larger sizes or hacks like buying men’s shoes, but has grown into a community for women of all sizes to accept their bodies. I accepted my own body in the process, by speaking with other women who were in the same place as I was, all of us operating under the misguided belief that our bodies were wrong. It’s taught me, and hopefully many others, that we are enough. We always have been.
Harling Ross (Me)
August 2, 2012
Is there anything more distinctly “2012” than wedge sneakers, shelf-stable almond milk, and the Valencia filter? I think not, which is why this photo is the perfect encapsulation not only of my early Instagram presence, but also the zeitgeist of seven years ago.
Some context about the sneakers: they were knock-offs of the infamous Isabel Marant ones—about $600 cheaper, if I’m remembering correctly. I was so happy to have found a version I could actually afford that when I bought them, I posted three photos of them IN A ROW on my Instagram depicting them engaged in various activities, from drinking almond milk to watching Girls (also very 2012). I only got a handful of likes on each of them, but that didn’t matter at the time. It literally didn’t matter! Instagram was far from the vehicle for evaluating self-worth that it has morphed into now; it was more like a quaint scrapbook where you could digitally scotch-tape a poorly edited photo every now and then, and the only people who would see it were your best friends and maybe your cool aunt.
I bought the sneakers because I was obsessed with reading style blogs, and wedge sneakers were to style blogs in 2012 as peanut butter is to jelly. I had a blog of my own called “My Tomayto,” a name that made very little sense to me then and even less sense now. I wrote blog posts for it nearly every day consecutively for over a year, and coaxed loved ones into photographing me in absurd outfits to accompany them. I have since made the blog private, but if you search me on Google you can still see basically all the photos, a critical contributor to the ongoing maintenance of my humility.
The way I put together outfits back then is a lot like how I crafted Instagram posts: with total abandon. I’m inclined to say both were noticeably more authentic and therefore better as a result, even if they weren’t actually better in terms of quality, but maybe that’s simply the power of nostalgia lending them a certain sheen. Regardless, it’s difficult to move through the world now, particularly from an aesthetic perspective, in a way that doesn’t feel somewhat manufactured. No matter how hard you try to listen to your gut, you do so with the creeping knowledge that even guts aren’t immune to the influence of algorithms. Just ask anyone wandering the kombucha aisle at Whole Foods.
I get the feeling that we’re reaching a turning point, though–or maybe a tipping one. That a decade after Instagram was born, the reckoning is nigh. There will always be a magnetic pull to tell stories about ourselves, whether through words or photos or clothes, but the way we tell them is a moving target, one that responds to the culture and our shifting relationships with ourselves. I don’t think authenticity has to be a relic of the past, it just might look a little different in the future.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.