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Why the photo explosion isn’t a technology story

September 16, 2014

By Ian Greenleigh


Nearly one trillion photos will be taken

Our brains are wired to communicate and learn visually. The creative urge that motivates visual expression has been pondered by Darwin and neuroscientists alike, but it’s clear that the urge has been part of our history since the concept of history existed.

Technologies, then, are modern means to ancient ends: visual expression, communication and experiences. While devices and networks connect us to each other functionally, the content we create, share and experience across them connects us emotionally–especially when that content is visual.

In the broadest terms, the visual creative explosion is the inevitable result of widespread and profound improvements to our capacity to connect and create. Zooming in a bit, we see barriers to entry being lowered as the “friction” that normally accompanies creative output withers away.

Measuring the explosion

Let’s talk abundance. This year, 123 photos will be taken per person on Earth. In 2000, that ratio was 14:1. In 1996, it was 9:1.

In May 2013 it was estimated that 500M images were being shared per day. One year later that number had grown by 260% to 1.8B images shared per day. That’s 75M photos an hour. 1.25M photos a minute. 20.8K a second.

In 2013, all of the eight fastest-growing mobile apps in the world were visual in nature.


One of them, Instagram, has amassed 200M users, who generate 60M photos and receive 1.6 billion likes per day.

From 2013 to 2014, Instagram adoption jumped from 13% to 17% of online adults in the U.S., while curation-centric Pinterest rose from 15% to 21%.


Facebook and Twitter were not originally visual platforms. Early Twitter was powered by SMS (mobile text messages) to such an extent that it “produced a monthly bill for the company approaching six figures,” according to Hatching Twitter author Nick Bilton.

Today, tweets with image links get twice the engagement rate of those without, as well as a 35% retweet boost. Perhaps most tellingly, eight of the top ten most favorited tweets of all time contain images, led by Ellen’s famous Twitter-crashing celebrity selfie.

After adding photo galleries in 2005, Facebook quickly became a de facto visual platform. By 2011, Facebook had catalogued 10,000 times as many photos as the Library of Congress. Currently, users post 7.5B photos each month, and 87% of shared posts from Facebook pages are photos.

For every photo posted by the most followed brands on Instagram, hundreds or even thousands of branded photos are posted by consumers. For example, for every photo posted by a top brand in the Fashion vertical, over 5,000 photos are posted by consumers with that brand’s hashtag, on average.


The story these numbers tell didn’t begin with Instagram, or even the first camera phone. They simply tell a new chapter in a story that stretches back to the Brownie camera, and really, to Gutenberg’s printing press. Humans build tools to express themselves better, to reach more people with what they create, and to empower others to do the same.

In The Rise of The Visual Creators, you’ll get more jaw-dropping stats, dive deeper into our visual history, meet an influential Instagrammer, and learn about a new area of innovation helping brands become modern day “gallerists.”