When the time came for Ansel Elgort to promote “Baby Driver,” he dutifully embarked on a global press tour in support of what ended up being one of the brightest spots in an otherwise dreary summer at the box office.

But the 23-year-old actor believes it wasn’t the media coverage that fueled the movie’s success as much as it was his Instagram account, where his 9 million followers get a more unmediated view of the actor. “I feel less filtered on Instagram, honestly,” he says. “Young people would rather see content directly from me than a publication.”

Instagram has become the default social app for celebs and top digital influencers — reaching a robust average audience of 500 million people on a daily basis in the third quarter of 2017, more than double that of Snapchat or Twitter (each has fewer than 200 million daily active users).

The core of Instagram’s appeal for stars, average users and advertisers alike is its visual roots as an app for sharing lovingly curated photos. It also has scored by blatantly poaching Snapchat’s Stories feature — a way for users to share ephemeral moments that vanish after 24 hours — and by piggybacking on the resources of parent Facebook. (See related story, “Why Instagram Is the No. 1 Social App for Young Stars Like Vanessa Hudgens, Cameron Dallas, Dove Cameron, and More.”)

But Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s CEO, says another key factor for the app’s popularity is less appreciated: The company strives to create a safe, happy environment — a quality that Instagram rivals, from its big-sister brand Facebook to Twitter, have come under increasingly strident criticism everywhere from Capitol Hill to Wall Street for lacking.

“I’ve seen how other companies have misstepped in managing communities,” says Systrom, who founded Instagram in 2010 with fellow Stanford alum Mike Krieger. “People say Instagram is super positive and optimistic. In fact, we have a ton of negative stuff, but we’re going after it before we have a problem.”

Instagram has invested in machine-learning technology to strip out nasty troll comments and bullying. It has introduced tools to let users block comments based on keywords or hashtags. The service also allows comments on a post to be disabled entirely, a move its senior team had debated making, since that reduces overall engagement.

Instagram dubs the initiative “Technology for Kindness,” and Systrom compares it to the broken-windows theory of reducing crime by maintaining a neighborhood’s aesthetics. “If you’re the one guy who is going to be mean in a list of comments, you feel totally out of place,” he says. “We’re trying to remove the bottom 1% of really awful stuff.”

That’s not just marketing BS. Instagram hasn’t been plagued with the level of harassment and abuse problems that dog Twitter, which uses the same open-follower model (versus the friend-based paradigm of Facebook and Snapchat).

Part of the reduced level of abuse is due to design choices: For example, Instagram doesn’t have a built-in re-posting feature, which puts a damper on flame wars.

“When you post something on Twitter, those tweets get retweeted and they take on a life of their own,” says Kira Kosarin, who stars in Nickelodeon’s “The Thundermans,” about a family with superpowers. “Instagram lets me show a truer picture of myself.”

“We’re all growing into it. We’re all learning as things come up,” says Kevin Systrom.
Cody Pickens for Variety

It’s true that nastiness and negativity exist everywhere online. But “out of all the platforms, Instagram is doing the best [job of making] it a safe, clean place; it’s better than Facebook, YouTube or Twitter,” says Scott Fisher, partner and founder of talent-management company Select Management Group, whose clients include Eva Gutowski (“MyLifeAsEva” on YouTube) and transgender star Gigi Gorgeous.

Ultimately, Instagram’s generally upbeat and aspirational culture flows from the app’s visual-dominant vocabulary. Instagrammers are more likely to post the perfect selfie, sunset or latte — in other words, stuff they love — rather than, say, feud and fume about Donald Trump, terrorism or mass shootings.

“Instagram is so beautiful. People want to go there to get a break from reality,” says Colleen Leddy, head of communications strategy at ad agency Droga5, which is minority-owned by WME. “Twitter and Facebook are tied to reality. There’s a lot of politics and shouting.”

Onto that foundation Instagram has steadily layered video and other creative tools. It stole a piece of Snapchat’s thunder with Instagram Stories in August 2016, a near exact replica of Snapchat Stories. That’s been a hit, letting creators post less-than-perfect, spontaneous photo and video composites on Instagram in addition to more carefully crafted images — a one-stop social app. (Snapchat has not commented publicly on the copycatting as it pursues a strategy to compete with Instagram by launching new tools and features.)

Engagement rates on Instagram are far higher than on other platforms, in part because of the platform’s advanced content-discovery algorithms, says Tim Sovay, chief operating officer of influencer-marketing software vendor CreatorIQ. For the same kind of content, he says, it’s not uncommon to see Instagram produce 10 times the engagement of Facebook or Twitter.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion. With Instagram’s rapid rise, the deal is considered one of the smartest (or luckiest) ever executed in Silicon Valley. Instagram will generate some $4 billion in revenue this year, per Wall Street consensus estimates.

The company enjoys major benefits by being under Facebook’s wing. All of Instagram’s technical infrastructure leverages Facebook’s to some degree. Instagram has been able to adopt Facebook’s product developments, lowering its R&D costs. For example, Instagram launched live-streaming video last year with a 10-person team, using the same back-end system Facebook Live developed with around 100 people, according to Systrom. The two entities also share ad-sales reps and operate on the same ad platform.

“Facebook is fantastically successful,” says Systrom. “Instagram gets to grow up right next door, leveraging their learning and sales teams.”

The ability to let Facebook advertisers extend campaigns across Instagram by basically checking a box gives Instagram a big advantage over rivals like Snap, according to Sam Kemp, senior research analyst for internet technology at Piper Jaffray & Co. Add to that the very high receptivity Instagram users have to marketing messages: At 54%, it’s higher than email, according to Piper’s 2017 survey of teen consumer trends.

“We think Instagram, long term, could be a bigger business than Facebook,” Kemp says. “It comes down to the fact that it’s a channel where people are much more accepting about brands and marketing.”

“I’ve seen how other companies have misstepped in managing communities. People say Instagram is super positive and optimistic. In fact, we have a ton of negative stuff, but we’re going after it before we have a problem.”
Kevin Systrom

While Instagram doesn’t directly pay any of its users to post on the platform, it has a strategic team of about 30 whose goal is to help big-name talent get the most out of their fan bases. Charles Porch, Instagram’s head of global creative programs, who previously was Facebook’s head of music and entertainment partnerships, helps to oversee the team.

Porch says the strategic group can help the company’s partners maximize its products. “What talent is realizing is they can build this really engaged, really authentic relationship that’s a direct connection to their fans — and they want to be ninjas at it.”

According to industry execs, Instagram is effective at keeping power users in the loop. “They actively listen to the community. They pay attention,” says Greg Goodfried, head of digital talent at UTA.

One example of Instagram responding to feedback: It permits Stories to include links (which aren’t allowed in regular-feed posts), so that users can drive fans to e-commerce or off-site content. It’s also created new real estate at the top of the news feed to promote Instagram Stories, helping influencers gain followers.

Goodfried echoes that Instagram’s success in attracting influencers has stemmed from its focus on encouraging positivity. To some extent Instagram simply got lucky in how the culture of its user base evolved to focus on things people love, avoiding controversial subjects. But “the platforms set the tone,” he says. On Instagram, “you don’t have this cycle of negativity of a celebrity posting something, then thousands of people editorializing on it.”


To be sure, Instagram has to deal with a measure of the ugly problems every other internet platform does. Some still spew hateful comments. Instagram also has been targeted by hackers. In August, the account of Selena Gomez, Instagram’s biggest celebrity, with more than 129 million followers, was hijacked. The result: several nude photos of Justin Bieber briefly being posted to her feed.

Instagram this summer said hackers stole personal information from certain high-profile user accounts (it didn’t name names), including email addresses and phone numbers. The problem was identified as a bug in a programming interface that the company says has been fixed. Earlier this month, Facebook disclosed to a congressional panel that about 20 million U.S. Instagram users might have seen Russian-linked content designed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Asked about such challenges, Systrom points out that the industry is only about a decade old. “We’re all growing into it. We’re all learning as things come up,” he says.

Meanwhile, Instagram influencers also have come under fire from the Federal Trade Commission: The agency has contacted dozens of Instagram celebs with large followings, warning them that their sponsored posts didn’t have disclosures that satisfied FTC guidelines. In response, Instagram this summer launched the test of a new “paid partnership with” subheader on sponsored posts and stories.

It’s just a matter of time before Instagram starts to require branded posts to be tagged in a standard way. And that could potentially open the door for the service to throttle down organic distribution of branded content, so that marketers would have to pay for broader reach, according to some observers. Influencer-marketing spending on Instagram is set to reach $1 billion in 2017 and could top $2 billion by 2019, according to estimates by digital agency Mediakix.

“There are a lot of questions in the air of how branded content will be distributed organically in the future,” says CreatorIQ’s Sovay. “There are a lot of hypotheticals.”

Systrom says Instagram’s full focus is on catering to all of its users. “Honestly, we are not doing our jobs if they are not getting as much value out of it as possible. If we don’t do that, we’re screwed,” he says.

The social and internet-video landscape isn’t a zero-sum game. To Systrom, every platform of scale has a unique job it fulfills, whether that’s Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. That said, he allows that he can envision a future in which Instagram reaches more people than Facebook.

“To think there will be only one use case [for social media] doesn’t make sense,” Systrom says. “The question is: Which platform will be the dominant one?”