The photo sharing app Instagram is now the most popular social network for teens worldwide, eclipsing both Twitter and Facebook — and that level of influence means that we're now obsessed with its every move, from banning an emoji of an eggplant to censoring bare nipples on women. But beyond the #FreeTheNipple hype, a few enterprising users — from huge charity organizations to remote doctors and individuals with Big Ideas — are tapping into the values of Instagram and similar platforms as an effective way to do good in the world.
This may seem either way too ambitious or seriously limited. What can a photo app with filters actually do, aside from make you look hot? Lots, it turns out. Instagram has been picked up by some of the biggest players on the charitable scene; at the very least, they use it to raise awareness of what they do. A quick photo-sharing app is a godsend for organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, who fly medical help to some of the most remote parts of the world — and now they can post snaps directly from the ground in Nepal, Haiti, and Yemen. WaterAid's also been Instagramming the wells it's building in Malawi as part of its Big Dig campaign. It's a document of what's really going down and a demonstration of where peoples' donations are going. Win-win.
But others are thinking even bigger than that. Here are seven photo app users trying to use their powers to make the world a better place, one snap at a time.
1. Figure 1
Figure 1 isn't Instagram itself — it's billed as "Instagram for doctors." The basic idea? Use photo-sharing to crowdsource diagnoses from doctors and specialists around the world. That way, doctors faced with a puzzling case, a lack of resources, or an unusual discovery can quickly call in reinforcements outside their own hospital. Essentially, it's House on your mobile.
Vitally, the patient's anonymity is strictly protected — Figure 1 is a lot more regulated than Instagram — and, while anybody can take a look, only verified doctors can actually take a punt at diagnosis. It's also being used to teach medical professionals about any advances in the field.
(Full disclosure: my doctor uses this, and consulted it on a mole on my leg because she wasn't fully qualified to assess it. Experts weighed in, and I was given the all-clear ... and was seriously gobsmacked in the process.)
2. Dallas Pets Alive Shelter's #Muttbombing
Dallas Pets Alive, a shelter in Texas, used Instagram and a little Photoshop magic for a campaign to raise awareness about mutts waiting to be adopted in its kennels. It #muttbombed a bunch of Instagram users' selfies, photoshopping some very cute (and very real) dogs to show how good they'd look as a pair.
Mutt Bombing on Instagram raised the website's traffic 700 percent, according to an interview Pets Alive gave to The Chronicle Of Philanthropy, and people have started to write in to ask to be muttbombed with a cute pooch.
3. The Met Museum Of Art
The Met's Instagram account was launched in January 2013 by the museum's Social Media Manager, Taylor Newby, who collaborated with 26-year-old photography editor Dave Krugman to put its collections onto Instagram for the masses to enjoy on a series of #emptymet tours. On these tours, they invited Instragrammers with large followings to tour the Museum before public hours and share their photos via the hashtag #emptymet.
Krugman told Fortune that the aim was to give Instagram users a "private tour of the No. 1 museum in the world" — particularly those who would never get the chance to visit in real life. Online catalogs are already spreading in the museum world, but publishing notable works on Instagram as a serious, long-term project for the public is kind of a first. Good work, guys.
4. UNICEF's #5thBDay And #BringBackOurChildhood Campaigns
This is raising awareness at its cutest. If you've ever wanted to see a picture of Hillary Clinton as a five-year-old, check out UNICEF's Instagram; they've been asking both normal Insta users and high-profile names, from Bill and Hillary to, well, Kim Kardashian (admittedly the queen of the selfie), to publish photographs of themselves on their 5th birthdays, in support of their #5thBDay campaign.
One of UNICEF's big pushes is to reduce child mortality, so the campaign — and its slogan, "Every Child Deserves A 5th Birthday" — is a savvy way to get people to make a commitment to the cause. Emboldened by its success, they've also pushed for the same idea more recently, with the #BringBackOurChildhood contest for photographs of childhoods in awareness of refugee children.
5. Habitat For Humanity's Photo Contest
Photo competitions on Instagram are hardly new: Marc Jacobs used one to great effect to source "normal" people for his latest campaign, under the hashtag #CastMeMarc. But Habitat for Humanity decided to use the idea for good in 2014.
Using the tag #HabitatPhotoContest, they asked volunteers to send in photos of themselves taking part in Habitat building projects for underprivileged families, and the winner was allowed a place as a volunteer on the annual, huge Jimmy Carter building project. That's right: the prize was volunteering. And hundreds of people entered.
6. Ebola Diaries And Other Ebola Witnesses
Sometimes Instagram's capacity to act as witness is a pretty powerful one — but it can also get behind the headlines. Ebola Diaries, a website that's now gone offline, aimed to show the realities of life in Ebola-stricken countries and camps, without the distortion of worldwide media panic.
It's been collecting Instagram photographs from journalists, aid workers, doctors and locals to show an unvarnished look at what it's really like on the ground — and the fact that it's still possible for kids to play and women to laugh. Now that Ebola Diaries has gone, other accounts have stepped into the breach, like More Than Me and journalist Carielle Doe.
Climate change evidence is much more visceral in photographs than it is in charts. (Sorry, Al Gore.) And Everydayclimatechange's Instagram took the lead by combining five separate respected nature photographers in different continents, and asking them to document the damage they found.
The project's since gone big, with spreads in The Guardian and National Geographic — and it's testament to Instagram's potential to make an impact with just one targeted stream of images.
Images: Instagram, UNICEF, Muttbombing, Figure 1.