Instagram Comes Of Age: Thank Hurricane Sandy & The Election

Instagram is all grown up. Not just because it now has a big, publicly-traded parent company. Nor am I referring to its unprecedentedly rapid user growth or new Web-based user profiles. In just the last few weeks, something significant has happened. Instagram became a mainstream social network, checked by everyday users during major news events and embraced by media outlets who previously weren't sure what to make of it. 

If there was a watershed moment in Instagram's rise to mainstream legitimacy, it was the arrival of Hurricane Sandy last week. As the superstorm wreaked havoc upon New York and New Jersey, Instagram saw a record-breaking ten photos posted every second. Before long, more than 800,000 images were tagged #sandy, leading to what CEO Kevin Systrom called "the single largest event taking place that was captured on Instagram.” 

Instagram's Twitter Moment

It wasn't just the sheer volume of Sandy photos that made this significant. For the first time, the mobile photo-sharing service was being used and talked about during a major news event - the same way Twitter has been for years. Twitter and Facebook remained every bit as chatty as they've tended to be during events like this. But the uniquely visual nature of Instagram lent itself perfectly to a news event that was all about images - from flooded city streets and ransacked store shelves to the eerily dark Manhattan skyline. 

For the most part, these image were authentic, even if some were mis-tagged and off-topic. Perhaps because it's so closely tied to the functionality of actual cameras, Instagram was less of a breeding ground for deceitfully Photoshopped images than social networks that exist on the desktop first. It was still entirely possible to get fake photos onto Instagram, but not as effortlessly as they could be posted to Twitter or Facebook.

Instagramming The Election

Election day was another watershed moment for Instagram. As Americans headed to the polls to get their free "I Voted" stickers, many were whipping out their smartphones and documenting everything from long lines to their own ballot (which may or may not be legal). 

The last time we had a presidential election in the United States, the iPhone was a year old, Android was brand new and there was no such thing as an iPad. Instagram was still two years away from being launched. How things have changed in four years. 

For its Instagramming the Election feature The New York Times is using the Storify interface to display hand-curated, user-generated images tagged with #NYTelection. That the nation's 161-year-old newspaper of record is utilizing a 2-year-old social network to solicit reader-submitted photography is a testament not just to Instagram's explosive growth, but to its rapid rise to legitimacy. When the app first landed in the App Store, it was something many professional photographers frowned upon. 

That began to change only within the last year or so. At the Online News Association (ONA) conference in September, educator and popular Instagrammer Richard Koci Hernandez led a panel about how media organizations can use Instagram, trying his best to explode the myth that doing so was somehow "cheating." His audience was mostly receptive, but not everybody at ONA was sold on Instagram as a tool for news publishers.

Across the industry, it's still something media outlets are figuring out what to do with, and the payoff is not immediately clear. Still, with more than 100 million users and its prominence in two recent historic events, Instagram is now officially impossible to ignore.