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Instagram now has more than half a billion active users

Thought the internet community has had its fill of food, cat, and sunset pics? Think again. Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo network, just crossed an important milestone in its mission for world picture-sharing dominance: it has amassed more than 500 million active users, 300 million of whom use the service “at least once a day.”

Instagram’s upward growth isn’t a recent trend. Over the past two years, the social network has more than doubled in size — it told USA Today that it hit 400 million users in September, and added its latest 100 million active users faster than the previous 100 million, expanding far beyond the U.S. audience that was once its largest. International users represent more than 80 percent of the service’s photo sharers, and contribute “significantly” to the 95 million videos and photos uploaded to the service each day.

“500 million is a milestone that very few companies get to,” Instagram chief Kevin Systrom told Forbes. “This scale is not a badge on our uniform, but a signal of our ambition. If we can have a billion or a billion and a half on Instagram, we get closer to capturing every experience in the world … [and] it’s a whole new chapter.”

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It’s difficult to picture now, but Instagram began as a free, fledgling photo app for iOS that launched with a mere $500,000 in seed funding against well-established incumbents like Yahoo’s Flickr and 500px. Perhaps thanks to its emphasis on social features — Instagram quickly added support for hashtags, comments, and a system of Facebook-inspired system of “liking” and “following” — the service achieved cult status, rocketing to the top of Apple’s App Store downloads in 2011. And the momentum didn’t stop there: more than three million users downloaded the Android version of Instagram when it launched in 2012, and shortly after, Facebook stepped in: the social network bid $1 billion in cash and stock for Instagram and the 13 employees it had at the time.

Instagram owes much of its early success to a laissez-faire approach to community, including the ability of users to follow other users without having to make and approve friend requests. This, Instagram posits, has fostered far stronger, tighter-knit niches than are traditionally observed on generalist social networks like Twitter — interest groups like basketball, fashion, food, landscapes, and art have growing, dedicated followings. “We blew up that assumption and said there is a whole world of behavior around letting everyone see your photos,” Systrom told Forbes. “I don’t have to request you as a friend to see your photos. That’s Instagram’s super power.”

In the intervening years, Instagram’s pivoted much of its development effort from acquiring users to fleshing out the service’s core capabilities. In 2012, it launched a simple client that let users browse Instagram pictures on the web, and in 2013, it launched Instagram Direct, a peer-to-peer feature intended to combat ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat, Secret, and others.

It has also switched to an algorithmic feed, rolled out a simplified interface and new icon, and most recently has turned its attention to two new potential profit centers — enterprise and advertising. In May 2016, Instagram launched business tools including business accounts, business profiles, analytics, and promotions.

Related: Instagram to start rolling out algorithmic feeds this month

Instagram’s pulled impressive numbers for Facebook, but numbers short of what its parent company’s other acquisitions have achieved — WhatsApp, which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014, reached a billion users earlier this year. Still, that hasn’t prevented advertisers on Instagram from spending freely. More than 2000,000 marketers have joined Instagram to date, and Facebook said that 98 of its top 100 advertisers are actively running campaigns on the photo-sharing platform. Furthermore, research firm eMarketer projects that the social network will reach more than $1.5 billion in global advertising revenue this year, or 8.4 percent of Facebook’s net mobile ad revenue, and more than $5 billion by 2018.

“Images have always been the currency of communication,” Systrom told Forbes. “If you think of a community of people who are centered around their passions, food, sport, photography, celebrity, travel, those are all interests that brands and businesses want to connect to.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, Instagram has managed to stave off the competition, who are doing well, but not at the same scale. Pinterest counts more than 150 million users among its ranks and is forecasting $169 million revenue this year. Snapchat, which competes with Instagram among the same demographic lines — i.e., teenagers and young adults — hit 100 million daily active users last year, and is targeting $300 million in revenue by the end of 2016.

So what’s the future hold for Instagram, exactly? Systrom told Forbes that “new video tools, virtual reality, and e-commerce” will play undoubtedly play part. “It feels like a new company,” he said. “It’s a whole new chapter.”