How Does Instagram Work? It’s All About Structures

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

By David Rincón | Colombia

Instagram is a social network with hundreds of millions of users sharing audiovisual content every day. Around 1 billion people use it every month – that is 14% of the world’s population. Being part of most of GenZ’s daily routine, Instagram plays a significant role in our understanding of concepts like friendship, privacy, and sociability, for instance. Despite such importance, do we really know how does Instagram work?

The idea that by using an object again and again we get to understand its inner functions is a misconception. From the people I know, for example, just a handful can tell how a car engine transforms fuel into movement, although most of them (as far as I’m concern) ride a car or a bus frequently.

Cooking is a nice example too. Even though most of us consume cooked meals on a daily basis, do we comprehend how the heat changes the composition of the ingredients?


This type of ignorance, however, is not a sin. It is our default estate in a complex world.

Instagram is not the exception: GenZs feel comfortable using it but may not understand how it works. Here, I offer a brief explanation of Instagram inner processes, and to do so, I employ tools from sociocultural anthropology because it offers the appropriate methods and concepts to describe the intricacies of a virtual social world. To be more precise, I apply a structural-functionalist approach. I assume that Instagram is a structure composed of various pieces, each executing a function that contributes to the maintenance of the system. I then focus on the relationships between them to unravel the mechanics of the overall structure.

Interested in more anthropology-related content? Check this article.

So how does Instagram work? Let us look at its pieces.

The main purpose of an Instagram account is to connect two sets of individuals: those who offer content – “the givers” – and those who receive it– “the receivers”. The giver communicates with the receiver through instruments like posts and stories – the “content.” A post is a combination of a picture or video with a caption (Instagram hosts a total of around 40 billion posts). The giver places the posts in a personal platform known as a “profile”, which compiles them chronologically. A receiver with access to a giver’s profile can review any of its content. The giver is the only agent able to change its own profile: adding and dropping posts relies exclusively on him/her.

Once the content reaches the receiver – when a user sees a post, for instance – he/she can decide to invert the communication flow and reply to the giver through a set of tools known as “interactions”.

These include:

  1. The “like” button: by clicking on it the receiver says to the giver “ I like this post”. This button is hit by an average of 4.2 billion times per day.

  2. The comments section: space where receivers comment on the post.

  3. The “follow” button: receivers click this button in the givers’ profile to indicate that they wish to check out the givers’ future content.

These “interactions” reveal a key character of Instagram communication: it is a two-way symmetrical path enabling both parts to interact back and forth.

The components of the system are connected in this order: giver-content-receiver-interaction-giver. The process repeats itself countless times with every user in the network. Any change to these mechanisms modifies the means of communication between both parties.

The system’s function is, in the end, to connect the giver and the receiver in a circular chain.

Furthermore, all givers are receivers and all receivers are givers: every user can create content for other users and interact with others’ content. The communication flow is endless.

The structural approach explains Instagram as a system composed by parts. Their relationship, described above, configures the basic functioning of the network and might explain the system’s flexibility and efficiency in keeping people connected. Not for nothing 500 million people use Instagram stories every day.

To answer how does Instagram work is a matter of a book’s chapter length, yet these components and their relationships are a good starting point to understand its functioning.


The views and opinions expressed in this entry are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Zeitgeist. Assumptions made in the analysis are not reflective of the position of any entity other than the author(s). The Zeitgeist does not verify the accuracy of any of the information contained in the entry. The Zeitgeist is not to be held responsible for misuse, reuse, recycled and cited and/or uncited copies of content within this entry.



#socialnetwork #anthropology #structural #socialmedia #structure #instagram

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All