Instagram is one of the biggest social networks today, but not everyone is familiar with it. If you don’t use social media, you might be wondering what Instagram is and how it works.
Below, we offer an introductory overview of Instagram. We look at what it is, what people use it for, and how to use its features yourself. By the end, you should have a good handle on how Instagram works.
What Is Instagram?
Instagram is a free social networking service built around sharing photos and videos. It launched in October 2010 on iPhone first, and became available on Android in April 2012. Facebook purchased the service in April 2012 and has owned it since.
Like most social media apps, Instagram allows you to follow users that you’re interested in. This creates a feed on your homepage, showing recent posts from everyone you follow. You can like posts, comment on them, and share them with other people.
In addition to posting regular photos and videos, which stay on your page permanently, Instagram also supports stories. If you’ve used Snapchat, or most other social media platforms, you’ll be familiar with these. Stories allow you to post many photos and video clips in a series. Anyone can view these for 24 hours, after which they expire.
That’s not all the options for video; Instagram offers IGTV and Reels, as well. Reels are a lot like what you’ll find on TikTok: short video clips that are easier to share and find than stories. And IGTV is for longer-form video that you want to keep on your profile.
Aside from all this, Instagram also supports direct messaging so you can chat with friends in private. You can also explore profiles to see what else you might have interest in.
We’ll show you how all this works below.
How to Get Started With Instagram
The best way to understand more about how Instagram works is to start using it for yourself. To do this, you’ll need to sign up for an account on Instagram’s website, or by downloading Instagram for Android or Instagram for iPhone.
You can also install Instagram for Windows 10, which is basically a port of the mobile app. While Instagram has a desktop site, it’s fairly limited. It’s passable for browsing your feed, but Instagram is definitely a smartphone-focused service. Check out your options for posting to Instagram using a computer if needed.
When you sign up, you can do so through Facebook. Alternatively, provide your name, email address, and set a username and password. You can create multiple Instagram accounts, should you ever need to.
How Does Instagram Work?
Let’s take a quick tour through each of Instagram’s major functions and pages. You’ll learn how to access these features and what they do.
Explore and Profiles
Instagram isn’t much fun without people to follow. Hit the magnifying glass icon on the bottom bar and you’ll open the Explore page. Here you’ll see pictures and users Instagram thinks you might like, along with categories at the top you can use to see more on a specific topic. As you use Instagram more and interact with posts, the recommendations on this page will improve.
Use the Search bar at the top to look up people you want to follow. Hit the Follow button on an Instagram profile to subscribe to the user’s posts. From then on, you’ll see what they share on your Home tab. You can unfollow an account at any time using the same process.
On profiles, you may also see options to Message or Email the person, depending on their settings. Profiles can include a location and link, along with archived stories. Tap on the fields about followers to search those accounts and check who follows them that you also know.
You’ll see tabs for the profile’s Instagram content below:
- The grid icon, on the left, is a feed of all their standard photos and videos.
- The Reels icon, which has a play button, collects all the person’s Reels.
- Next is the IGTV button, which is an archive of all longer videos.
- The right icon collects images that the account has been tagged in.
Notably, you’re able to set your Instagram profile to private. This means that only people you approve can see your posts. When someone wants to follow you, they must send a request that you confirm, or else they can’t see much on your page. It’s just one way to make Instagram more private.
Finally, keep an eye out for the blue checkmark on profiles. This signifies a verified profile, which means Instagram has confirmed it’s actually that public figure and not an impostor.
Your Home Feed
Once you’ve followed some accounts on Instagram, your Home tab will become a much more lively place. On it, you’ll see posts from those you follow. These include pictures and videos people post to their profile, as well as previews of IGTV videos you can tap to view in their entirety.
At the top, Instagram shows the profile pictures of people who have a new story for you to view. Tap one and you’ll start watching the stories. You can tap the right side of the screen to jump to the next section of that user’s story, or slide from right to left to skip that person entirely. Stories will continue until you reach the end of everyone you follow, with ads interjected at various points.
At the top-right, you’ll see the Messages icon. Tap this to start a new direct message with one or more accounts, or view your current messages. You can also use Rooms to video chat.
Other Instagram Tabs
There are several other tabs and buttons on Instagram’s interface you should know about. At the top, tap the heart button to open the Activity page, where you’ll see notifications about new followers, mentions, and similar.
On the bottom navigation bar, there’s a Reels button in the middle. Tap this to open a feed of Reels that Instagram thinks you will like. You can swipe through these to view more; tap the icons in the bottom-right corner to comment, share, or see other Reels that have used the current music.
To the right of the Reels tab is a Shop tab, where you can buy various products sold through the platform.
Finally, tap the Profile icon at the bottom-right corner to open your page. Here you can edit your profile and review how your page looks. Tap the three-line menu button in the top-right to access a lot more, including your Saved posts and the Settings menu.
How to Post on Instagram
To upload a new post to Instagram, just tap the Plus icon at the top-right corner of the screen. This lets you take a new photo or video, or upload an existing picture from your phone’s gallery. You can add multiple pictures to one post, as well.
After you take your photo, you can apply one of Instagram’s many filters with just a tap. If you want more control, try manually making changes using the Edit tab.
Finally, on the last screen, you can add a caption to your picture, tag people, mark the location if you want, and choose whether to share it to other social networks. Tap Advanced Settings for more tools, like disabling comments or hiding the like count.
Once you hit Share, your picture will appear on your profile and in your followers’ feeds.
Story, Reels, and Live Posts
After tapping the Plus button to create a new post, you can use the tabs at the bottom to change the type to Story, Reels, or Live instead.
On the Story creator, you can chose from a ton of filters at the bottom, plus options to the left. After taking a picture, you’ll have more utilities at the top to add music, stickers, text, and more. At the bottom, you can tap Your Story or Close Friends to choose who sees the story.
Reels will let you create short TikTok-like videos, as mentioned earlier. And Live lets you broadcast in real-time to your followers, using a variety of filters if you like.
Covering these features in-depth is beyond the scope of this introductory guide. Have a look at our introduction to Instagram Reels and how to add more to your Instagram story to pick up more on these features.
What’s the Point of Instagram?
You might be wondering what the purpose of using Instagram is when there are so many other social networks around. The main draw of Instagram is that it’s based around photos and videos, which are super easy to take with a smartphone.
You don’t have to carry around a camera to share the world around you—just snap a photo, apply a filter, and you’re good to go. Video is similarly simple. Anyone can record a quick video of themselves and potentially go viral, or broadcast to friends with no special equipment.
While it’s not a concern for the average person, using Instagram as an advertising tool is also quite common. Some Instagram users use the service to amass followers, sharing photos solely designed to build a following. They then promote their blog or try to sell products to make money, using common Instagram captions along the way.
You’ll usually see #ad, #sponsored, or similar in these posts to mark that a company has paid for the post to appear.
Even if you don’t care about photography, using Instagram as a “lurker” (where you follow others but don’t post) is totally fine. It can be a fun way to keep up with your friends, and many celebrities also give glimpses into their lives through stories.
Try following your favorite band members, sports stars, and similar if you don’t want to follow people you know in real life.
Now You Know What Instagram Does
We’ve taken a high-level look at what Instagram is, some basics on how the service works, and why you might want to give it a try. There’s more to mastering Instagram’s various features, but now you at least know how to start using it yourself.
If you don’t remember anything else, just know that Instagram is a social network built around sharing photos and videos. It’s become popular thanks to its simple filters that make your smartphone photos look better with little effort. Some of its featured have been copied by other social platforms, and it’s “borrowed” plenty of ideas from similar apps itself.