It seems today, everyone has become immersed in some form of social network or another. By 2020, there is expected to be 2.95 billion social-networking users on the planet. As of December 2016, there was a record 600 million active Instagram users alone, with Facebook having surpassed 1 billion the year prior. Whether such high rates of user activity are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will not be discussed in this post. Rather, it will look at various changes the social media platform Instagram has facilitated, particularly in relation to the selling and advertising of products online.

However, there are a couple of preliminary steps which must be considered before these can be considered.

To begin, we must first cement the idea that Instagram has its own Networked Public. A Networked Public can be thought of “as publics that are restructured by networked technologies…They are simultaneously

(1) The space constructed through networked technologies and;

(2) The imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice”

(Boyd, 2008)

In other words, a networked public is the result of the imagined (non-tangible) space of, say, Instagram, and the imagined community that emerges as a result it.

Like all other imagined communities (Anderson, 1983) this community is a “network of people with a common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources” (Business Dictionary, 2017). Instagramers are a collection of people whose commonality is being a user of Instagram.

So we have our public; now what?

We must figure out what is important to our public.

To do this, we must look at the Public Sphere. Without going too in-depth, the Public Sphere can be understood as: “…where each of us finds out what’s happening in our community and what social, cultural, and political issues are facing us” (McKee, 2005). It’s where we go to find out what’s important to us. Although this concept goes back to the 18th Century, (and is simplified in this post) it is still applicable for modern day audiences.

“We ought to be able not only to find any kind of document on the Web, but also to create any kind of document, easily” - Tim Berners-Lee (1992, 182)

It should be noted that although some may consider a majority of the current popular Instagram posts and trends to be flooded by ‘superficial’ content, #fitspo, and #selfie for instance. It still remains a cultural hub to discuss, engage, and indeed argue, about various ‘important’ cultural and political issues still prominent today, see #feminism, #awarenessmonth - That is to say, Instagram is indeed a Public Sphere – Specifically, to the Instagram Public.

But how ‘important’ a topic is perceived to one group has little effect on whether it will be important to another. What is considered ‘Newsworthy’, or ‘hard news’ to traditional forms of media, may simply not translate to new forms of media. Instagram was not designed to be a replica or replacement of ‘capital N’ news, so their goals and interests will be inherently different. This is consistent with advertising.

Traditionally, media and advertising consisted of top-down, one way, ‘we speak, you listen’ content (Rosen, 2006). The audience played little part except to listen and buy. With the invention of Web 2.0, this all began to change. Tim Berners-Lee believed “We ought to be able not only to find any kind of document on the Web, but also to create any kind of document, easily” (1992, 182) – and there is no reason this should not apply to the content and creations constantly featured, if not formed on Instagram.

Rainbow Highlighter”, a product created by Bitter Lace Beauty, became a seemingly overnight sensation back in April of 2016, and was featured in countless blog posts and magazine articles. This product is an example of the redistribution of power. The creator of the rainbow highlighter was not, and is not, a big time makeup company executive. She did not have an elaborate and expensive factory to manufacture her products. However, what she did have was a good idea, and a platform in which to share it - Instagram. Luckily for her, this platform facilitated the virality her product received online, which translated to actual monetary sales. Or as Jenkins and Green wrote, her success was at least partially a result of “the technical affordances that make it easier to circulate some kinds of media content than others” (2011, 112).

Rainbow Highlighter Swatches

In a similar vein, another product – well, brand – that got popular as a result of social media is ColourPop. Only three years old, the brand has amassed more than 4 million Instagram followers alone. However, their journey to the top was quite a bit different to that of Bitter Lace Beauty. Subsidiary of Seed Beauty, the parent company of another famous beauty brand, Kylie Cosmetics, ColourPop sought internet prominence aggressively. With financial support most indie sellers cannot compete with, ColourPop began to achieve fame as a result of a predominantly online focused ad campaign. A study of their Instagram feed reveals three common tactics for appealing to their millennial target audience:

1. Product pictures, with and without packaging

ColourPop Product Collage

2. Pictures of people (generally attractive) using and wearing their products

Women uploading selfies under the #ColourPop hashtag

3. Swatches (typically on forearm) of their products to show pigment

ColourPop Lipstick Swatches on Forearm

And it was successful… simple, but successful. ColourPop understands their target market, and their strong visual style has caught the attention of consumers. Almost 2 million times has #ColourPop been posted on Instagram, often accompanied by at least one of the above - Effectively, creating their advertising for them.

This is just one example of creating content, and a brand image, that consumers want to share and spread to others - A phenomenon which has become a legitimate, if not essential form of advertising online. According to millennials, content created by fellow users is around 20% more influential than other types of content (Macalalag, 2016). In fact, 92% of all consumers trust word-of-mouth more than any other type of advertising (Nielson, 2012). This, too, is at least a partial contributor of why ColourPop’s advertising was so effective, and subsequently why they became such a prevalent cosmetics brand in the Instagram public.

The popularity and following celebrity of ColourPop and Bitter Lace Beauty’s Rainbow Highlighter are both examples of how a social network can be used to successfully forgo traditional forms of sales and advertising. Instead opting in favour of a modern alternative, which now offers the opportunity for individuals without large sums of capital to create and sell their products on a large scale; a luxury not available just a few decades ago (Rosen, 2006). Arguably, neither Bitter Lace Beauty nor ColourPop could have achieved the same amount of notoriety so rapidly, had it not been for the affordances, namely the high velocity of shareability, Instagram facilitates.

YouTubers Grav3yardgirl, Jeffree Star, Tati (left to right) reviewing the Rainbow Highlighter

The Rainbow Highlighter was serendipitously chosen by the Gods, or the algorithms, or the influences – whoever it may have been – and was the fortunate recipient of the attention of countless people online. Although of course the product which received this attention had to be desirable to begin with, it still became famous due to some extent by luck.

ColourPop on the other hand had a more active role in their eventual attainment of the market. Creating advertising initiates designed to go viral online (if such a thing can be designed), and utilizing the platform to appeal to their target market, ColourPop succeed where many brands before them had failed. However, had it not been for the affordances Instagram provides, it is not unlikely that ColourPop’s rise in prominence would have taken far longer through traditional selling and advertising methods, if it were to occur at all.

Regardless, both businesses still remain examples of successful online ventures. Whether through design or chance, or a bit of each, the companies still signify an evolving state of entrepreneurship.



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Berners-Lee, Tim, and Mark Fischetti. Weaving The Web. 1st ed. London: Orion Business, 1991. Print.

Boyd, Danah. "Taken Out Of Context: American Teen Sociality In Networked Publics". Doctorate. University of California, Berkeley, 2008. Print.

Brake, David R. "Are We All Online Content Creators Now? Web 2.0 And Digital Divides". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19.3 (2013): 591-609. Web.

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Green, Joshua, and Henry Jenkins. The Handbook Of Media Audiences, Spreadable Media: How Audiences Create Value And Meaning In A Networked Economy. 1st ed. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Macalalag, Gerome. "How Colourpop Captivated The Hearts Of Millennials | Cubicle Marketing". Cubicle Marketing. N.p., 2016. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

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Created By
J.A. Muirhead

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