There are now  more than 280 Instagramers groups all around the world.

Instagram has become the most popular – and most famous – app for sharing and viewing photographs, especially since the addition of an Android version of the app and its billion-dollar acquisition by social networking giant Facebook in April this year. The app hit the 100 million user mark last month, with more than 5 billion photos uploaded since its debut two years ago.

But Instagram’s rapid success poses increasing challenges for photographers and photography enthusiasts alike, who use the app both to share and also to find interesting, original images. The most pressing challenge may be how to navigate the flood of imagery as these millions of users flock to the program: how to discover new work, and how to be discovered yourself, in turn.

Instagram does provide pathways to aid such discovery, including the use of hashtags to track topics and subjects, the “Following” tab, the Instagram team’s own “Suggested User” list, and its internal “Explore” page (previously the “Popular” page). The Explore page is based on a secret algorithm which is supposed to “surface the most recently interesting photos based on a variety of variables.”  However, many Instagram users long ago abandoned the page, seeing it more as a popularity contest than a showcase of interesting images.

Chris Smith, on his Appdaptation blog, wrote that “the Popular page is officially broken … their current formula gives the ‘people with fewer followers’ exactly 0% chance of making the Popular page.”  From a sample of images on this page, Smith discovered that the contributing photographers averaged 2,000 likes per photo and boasted just under 40,000 followers each. (As a comparison, these kinds of lofty figures are often reserved for celebrities or Instagram’s Suggested Users.) Knowing this, Instagram users have increasingly pushed for changes; there are even user protest groups fighting to improve the current format.

A recent screen capture of the Explore page showcases a mix of social networking photos, the ever-present cat pic and one or two artistic images.

As it becomes harder to see and be seen among the crowded Instagram feed, users are resorting to a number of spamming tactics to gain exposure.  “Follow for a follow!” and “Check out my pictures!” are common requests that litter the comment threads of popular Instagramers. Some users have also set up self-explanatory Instagram “Shout out” accounts. More disturbingly, third-party sites have recently started to sell packages of followers and likes to those desperate enough for exposure; on one site, $70 buys you 1,000 new likes.

A sample of the many follow accounts popping up on Instagram.
The @protest_now group is striving to make Instagram’s Explore page a place to find inspirational photos.

So how can Instagrammers avoid the shameless self-promotion and popularity contests to discover new art and artists in a more sincere way?

Instagram has moved the internal search bar to the top of the Explore page in an effort to encourage people to look for hashtags or users that appeal to their tastes, though this still eliminates the serendipity factor of a purely spontaneous stumble. Another aid is the “Following” tab on your News Feed, a feature which shows you photos that your friends are commenting on and liking.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is that while some Instagramers are trying to get ahead by any means necessary, other users are finding more positive ways to control their Instagram experience, putting community ahead of popularity.  Over the past few months, a number of new initiatives have sprung up to encourage participation and engagement between users, including the creation of web-based user forums, cross-country road trips and even apps that try to re-imagine the Explore page.

One of these efforts is led by Phil Gonzalez, founder of Instagramers: a network of Instagram users seeking to create local, real-world connections.

 Born in France, Instagramers founder Phil Gonzalez, 44, now works as a social media manager in Madrid, Spain. An early adopter of online marketing, he has worked for a number of telecommunications corporations and also launched several mobile apps, including a cooking app, Canal Cocina, which has more than one million downloads to date.

Under Gonzalez’s leadership, Instagramers has grown at a rapid rate since its early 2011 start. There are now more than 280 Instagramers groups worldwide.  Such groups are organized on an open-source model with independent control over their activities, promotions and events.  Starting with local photo walks, Instagramers activities include international conferences, corporate sponsorship arrangements and even a free, dedicated app which provides tutorials and showcases talented users. 

I recently spoke with Gonzalez about his motivation behind the Instagramers network, the reasons for its success and what Instagram might learn from their community approach.

Instagramers is now a vast network, but how did it all begin?

Instagramers started first as a blog. On an early Sunday morning in January 2011, I suddenly thought it could be interesting to help people with my own professional experience and knowledge of social media, apps and the Internet. I wanted to create something with a “citizen” approach—made by Instagramers, about Instagramers, for Instagramers.  I started the blog in a true open-source spirit, with people contributing, organizing and kindly offering their time, for no immediate reward.  

We started by founding groups in big cities around the world. First Barcelona, then Madrid, then we quickly added Italy and London, and then after that it all went very fast! People were so interested in meeting other Instagram users, outside of the app itself.

I read that you now have over 280 Instagramers groups all around the world. What is it about this desire to meet people, as you say “outside of the app” that draws people to these local groups and events?

Instagram is a company. Social networks usually don’t fit with big corporations and people always prefer independent movement with no relation to business interests.  From day one, I wanted Instagramers to be the independent flag for Instagram fans.  I think people were searching for a way to organize their local Instagram activities. Then, suddenly to feel part of an international movement made them feel part of a great family of users who focus their Instagram life around helping people, setting activities, meets and exhibitions, instead of their own personal Instagram “career.” People like to feel part of the movement and local organizers (I call them "manIgers”) feel they have contributed to the greater success.

There is something else important, too, and it's the fact that when you are in Instagram for a while you can feel you are getting stuck in a rut, taking the same pictures and chasing followers and likes. Instagramers groups, by encouraging participation in exhibitions and contests, add a dimension of social recognition too.

Which Instagramer communities are the most active, and what makes them so successful?

With no doubt, @IgersManila is probably the most active community in the world. In Europe, @IgersItalia is really professionally organised (due to the fact that many members are themselves social media managers or they work in communication/marketing in real life). In South America, @IgersBrasil, @IgersMexico, and @IgersVenezuela lead the Instagram world in terms of exhibits and deep involvement in the whole artistic culture of these countries.

In Spain, @IgersBcn (Barcelona) was the very first Instagramers group and is still very active. In the U.S., groups like @IgersChicago, @Igers_Seattle, @IgersPortland or @IgersSF are very active. But there are so many great groups, I feel ashamed not to list all of them as they are all doing their best, with their local environment and opportunities! 

Photos from the Instagramers Milano meet last year.

You recently had over 200 Instagramers attend the world's first Instagramers congress in Torrevieja, Spain. Can you share any of the key topics or ideas that featured at the congress?  What were you most excited about?

The idea for the first Instagramers congress came from Gabriel Samper (@kainxs). Initially, he wanted to exhibit 20 Instagramers in an exhibition in Torrevieja, Alicante, the town where he lives, in the eastern Spanish coast in the Mediterranean sea. He was supported by the town council and was very motivated with the project. One day we had a chat and I proposed [to] him to think bigger. And we decided to go for a great challenge: the first Instagramers congress ever. We enlisted sponsors like Desigual (fashion wear), Ford, and several other supportive partners, and were also helped by the Costa Blanca board of tourism who fronted all the cost of the events, exhibit and food.

We had 200 participants and a high level of speakers. Events included an editing masterclass, speeches on Instagram and marketing, Instagram and journalism.  Of course there was also gossip around the Facebook purchase and possible future of the app. What excites me more in this kind of events is the joy in people's faces when they meet each other and discover the person behind the username. It's so lovely. 

 Group portrait from the first ever Instagramers congress.

In one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that there were increasing problems with the Instagram Explore page, with social photos pushing out better quality images. With this in mind, do you think that people are still looking for quality photography on Instagram, or is the social aspect enough?

I think Instagram is still finding its way. The funny thing is that nowadays even the founders of companies don't really know where their businesses path will end. Twitter started like a chat between teenagers and slowly moved to a massive information feed tool. With Instagram, it's the same. We can only talk with confidence about what has already happened. The future is still unwritten. The app met with a huge success by focusing on Apple users.  The massive entry of Android (and famous people, too) broke open the former "small IG world." But I personally think there are so many changes to come.

Some people focusing on artistic and premium pics will end up using another photo sharing app. A lot of Instagram copies will probably appear, focusing on smaller targets (e.g. dogs, sports) and teenagers who are not "married" to any social network will probably leave to find new entertainment platforms. The best case scenario would be if Instagram meets success in the media and becomes a new form of social journalism and a relevant information feed.

With regards to the [Explore] page, it was one of the key factors of Instagram’s success, but the model is dead today with more than 85 million users (its own data estimation). The challenge for the Instagram team is to find other stimulus in people minds beyond populars, likes and followers.

In terms of looking for “stimulus beyond likes,” do you think any of the new Instagramers app features, like tutorials, user interviews or popular hashtags, could help improve the overall Instagram user experience?

Definitely. I can see a life after "likes" — the only problem is how to organize it. That's why we have started offering tips in the app, news, tutorials and why we are featuring interesting people in a weekly interview called “Focus On.” There are already over 40 interviews with talented Instagramers available to read on the app.

As for tutorials, when I wrote them (a year and half ago) there was no Instagram help desk, blog or tutorials and so I think I contribute in my own way to the overall Instagram experience. I also worked in improving web-based Instagram viewers like Extragram, Ink361, Statigram, Webstagram and I discovered really great developers, too. I’ve received so many kind comments about the tutorials that I think it worth it. 

 The Instagramers app features recent news ...
 ... as well as tutorials, and showcases interesting and active users.

Increasingly, I've seen local Instagramer communities, including New York, London and Los Angeles partner with commercial sponsors.  Are there any challenges in balancing the needs of local community members with those of public relations and marketing agencies?  

Instagramers’ network philosophy is to focus on users, not business and profit making. If a brand can front the expenses of one of our local activities, such as Instameets, exhibitions, or contests by sponsoring us, it's great. But we are not looking for personal gain. In some countries, where brands are more and more active online we thought it could be good to open some kind of association to make it official and share benefits with all the users, but it hasn’t happened as yet. I’ve heard some brands are directly contacting influential users and that Instagram is a little bit annoyed with this situation. When we organize events with influential users, it is to offer the possibility of an original activity, not to make money from it. 

For example, a few weeks ago, we set up the #CatalunyaExperience with the Agencia Catalana de Turismi and the idea was to promote Barcelona and the whole area of Catalonia. Eleven IGers were invited. They were not paid, but could enjoy a great trip, starting with an Instameet in Football Club Barcelona Stadium, a flight in a balloon and helicopter too, and discovering the local culture without any expenses. It's a real win-win between brands looking for new ways of communicating and "heavy users" who spent hundreds of hours in the app and find a way to take a small benefit of it.

Instagramers and Instagram communities are key to the success of Instagram and we didn't receive any single dollar in the Facebook purchase. I think it's fair users can get some extra motivation too.

Finally, what advice would you give a new user starting out on Instagram? 

Well, it's difficult because there are so many different kinds of new users. But if I could, I would come back to my early days in the app when I had only a hundred followers and followings. Enjoy these first steps, these are the best moments. Just like my youth is probably the best time in life! And don't focus only in followers and likes. Think about your pics, find your own style and enjoy every single "technique" improvement you do.

Misho Baranovic@mishobaranovic, has worked as a photographer for many years and is prominent in the emerging practice of mobile photography. His street photography has been exhibited internationally and in 2011 he held his first solo exhibition, New Melbourne, in Melbourne, Australia. He is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group, and the author of iPhone Photography.