Instagram hit 400 million average monthly users this year. That makes it bigger than Twitter. And while it seems most people use the app to post photos of their dinner, or their dog, or themselves, many photographers use the social media platform in the most unusual ways. It’s a place to experiment, find a community and start a conversation. Instagram has even reached the point where it can critique itself, as artists poke fun at the very cliches the app is famous for. The platform is proof photography is a visual language–and it has a lot to say.

Instagram as a sketchpad for ideas

Instagram is awash in fantastic projects and series. Photographers often use their feed to try new ideas, methods, or silly thoughts. From snapping selfies of a 3-D printed mini-me to creating bizarre photo mashups on your phone, a growing number of artists use Instagram to experiment. Some of them work. Some of them don’t. And a few have led to professional careers.

Instagram as a storytelling method

Most people think of Instagram as a place to post a single photo, or a series of photos. It is, of course, but it’s also a place where artists are taking a more narrative approach, carefully combining images and text to tell complex stories. Photographer Rachel Hulin is rolling out a novel in single-photo posts on @heyharryheymatilda, and WIRED chronicled W. Ralph Eubanks journey through Mississippi with Tabitha Soren’s breathtaking photos. While it feels trite to call Instagram a new way of telling stories, the platform does provide a fascinating way of following a narrative.

Instagram as a place for community

Instagram is about more than sharing pretty photos. The platform hosts entire communities where like-minded people meet and connect. From those who take their cats on extreme outdoor adventures to cliff jumpers trying to one-up each other with each post, Instagram is the place for sharing what you love … no matter how niche or unusual.

Instagram as a part of history

On July 20, 1969, the world watched on television as Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. This year, when New Horizons flew past Pluto, NASA released the first hi-res, full-color image of the dwarf planet on Instagram. Its choice of that platform underscores the cultural shift to the Internet—and more specifically, social media—as the most effective way to reach a global audience.

Instagram as social change

Photography is an effective tool for raising awareness, promoting activism, and bringing about change. Instagram presents these images, and issues, in a way that is both intimate and informative. Writer Tara Bedi and photojournalist Sumit Dayal created the Nepal Photo Project on April 25, the day an earthquake killed more than 9,000 people and injured 23,000 others. The crowdsourced feed became a vital source of information on rescue and recovery efforts, a place to post photos of the missing, and a resource for finding out how to support those in need.

Photographer Matt Black has chronicled poverty in California for the last twenty years, and was named Time‘s Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2014. This summer, he continued his work on a 18,000-mile road trip across the US, capturing cities and communities where the poverty level is above 20 percent. Each gripping image is geo-tagged and captioned with stats about the area. By posting the photos to Instagram, Black hopes they help viewers imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Instagram goes meta

Instagram’s been around long enough to have its own tired tropes. Take, for example, the satirical account @socalitybarbie, which used the iconic doll to send up every visual cliché and hackneyed hashtag, from pensive selfies and arty latte snapshots to meaningless hashtags like #authentic and #soblessed. But Socality Barbie was more than whip-smart jokes; it was a searing commentary on the carefully curated images that permeate Instagram. In doing so, Darby Cisneros joined the legion of artists helping make Instagram a vital part of an ongoing cultural conversation.

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A Year in Instagram: Hipster Barbies and Adventure Cats