Instagram and the smutty sleezy underground

Leyland is spicing up her relationship with the help of Instagram, the hugely popular smartphone app that allows you to take and share pictures with friends, “followers” and anyone with an internet connection. Recently it has also become the app of choice for soft-porn enthusiasts, who are flooding the service with suggestive images. Instagram has become Instaporn.

“For us, it’s more discreet than watching a porn movie or buying a dirty magazine. And it’s free,” Leyland explains.

Since it launched in October 2010, Instagram has enjoyed almost instant success. Initially a place where creative types could share pictures of cute pets, perfectly iced cupcakes and “food porn” (restaurant-style meals that appear to have been effortlessly knocked up in designer kitchens), last year it went mainstream, notching up 7.3m daily users in August, compared with Twitter’s 6.9m. By December, Instagram had 16.4m users logging in a day.

More users, it turns out, equals more sex, and these days you’re as likely to encounter a deluge of real porn on Instagram as you are food porn. “When explicit content starts showing up, it’s a sign that a social network has really arrived,” says Andy Smith, a tech entrepreneur and guest social-media lecturer from Stanford University. “Instagram has gone from being a niche trend to the thing everyone is talking about. As a result, the way people are using it has changed dramatically.”

‘If they admit the scale of the porn problem, their future is at risk’

The qualities which propelled Instagram to social-media stardom are also those which have helped it become one of the world’s largest portable soft-porn collections. Images are the key focus; there’s a comfortable degree of anonymity, the app’s fancy “filters” give your photos a vintage feel (a bit like faded Polaroids), and users can upload their pictures to an audience of millions in seconds. Sex services and more hardcore images are also present, nestling among what the porn entrepreneur Cyan Banister (who has worked on the business side of the adult industry for years) calls “the acceptable face of internet porn”.

Yet the presence of adult content directly contravenes the company’s new terms of service, which came into effect on January 19. The new wording prohibits the posting of “nude, partially nude… pornographic or sexually suggestive photos” and claims the right to “remove, edit, block and/or monitor” content or accounts they deem violate their terms.

In theory, this leaves no room for sideboob, nipples covered with emoticons, genitalia obscured by kittens, or any of the other creative workarounds Instaporners have devised.

So far the company’s main strategy has been to let its users self-police, relying on its community to report and flag up inappropriate images and accounts. Instagram then deletes some of the more extreme content and suspends or disables accounts of repeat offenders. But as the rules evolve, so too do the Instaporners’ efforts to stay under the radar.

Okidokiokami, 20, is an office assistant and part-time erotica model who shares raunchy images to more than 1,000 followers each day. “Almost everything I post is against Instagram’s rules,” she says. “I keep my account from being deleted by rotating the most risqué photos. I take a few down and save them before reposting a while later.”

The author and critic Howard Rheingold, who lectures at Stanford University, is a leading authority on “virtual communities” (a term he’s credited with inventing). He taught one of Instagram’s founders, Mike Krieger, and was invited to test the app before its public release. “People like attention. Until recently, in terms of media, only celebrities got recognition. These days, attention is a currency, whether it’s because you want to pitch your business or get an ego boost. Posting a naughty picture is a sure-fire way of getting noticed. The importance of porn in driving the adoption of social media is the internet’s dirty little secret.”