Instagram Was First Called 'Burbn'

Yes, after the drink.
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ASPEN, Colo.—Instagram didn't start out as Instagram. It started out as … Burbn. 

Kevin Systrom, the creativity researcher Keith Sawyer explains, was a fan of Kentucky whiskeys. So when he created a location-based iPhone app—one driven by the success of networking app Foursquare—he named it after the booze. The app was complicated, but it took Systrom just a few months to build: Burbn let users check in at particular locations, make plans for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups. 

Burbn was not, however, terribly successful. The app was too complicated, Sawyer points out, and had "a jumble of features that made it confusing." Systrom, however, kept tweaking the app. He paid attention to how people were using it. He brought on another programmer, Mike Krieger; the pair used analytics to determine how, exactly, their customers were using Burbn. Their finding? People weren't using Burbn's check-in features at all. What they were using, though, were the app's photo-sharing features. "They were posting and sharing photos like crazy," Sawyer notes.

At that point, Systrom and Krieger decided to double down on their data: They focused on their photo-sharing infrastructure and scrapped almost everything else. Burbn would become a simple-photo-sharing app. 

As Sawyer puts it in his book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Creativity

They began by studying all of the popular photography apps, and they quickly homed in on two main competitors. Hipstamatic was cool and had great filters, but it was hard to share your photos. Facebook was the king of social networking, but its iPhone app didn’t have a great photo-sharing feature. Mike and Kevin saw an opportunity to slip in between Hipstamatic and Facebook, by developing an easy-to-use app that made social photo-sharing simple. They chopped everything out of burbn except the photo, comment, and like features. 

They also added filters. But simplicity remained their focus. In their final version, you could post a photo in three clicks. 

After months of experimentation and prototyping—on October 12, 2010—Systrom and Krieger released a simple photo-sharing app. It was named not Burbn, but Instagram. 

"It's about going through false starts," Systrom said at a conference in 2012. And, yep, "Burbn was a false start. The best companies in the world have all had predecessors. YouTube was a dating site. You always have to evolve into something else."

And so does, often, your name. There was another prototype Systrom and Krieger built between Burbn and Instagram. It was named ... Scotch.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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