Kevin Systrom, co-founder of popular photo-filter app Instagram, had planned to visit the East Coast last week. Only Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Northeast kept him marooned in the Bay Area.
"I learned not to bet against hurricanes," says Systrom, who spoke Monday at GigaOm's Roadmap conference.
As the hurricane tore north up the East Coast, Systrom began monitoring Instagram's usage. He says the results astounded him.
"Sandy was the largest event to take place and be captured on Instagram," Systrom says. "It was maybe the largest event captured, ever. And that's an interesting thing to think about."
Systrom says that more than 800,000 photos were taken and shared with a "#Sandy" hashtag, and countless more went untagged. In contrast, Systrom says that the 2012 Super Bowl garnered just 85,000 photos with a #Superbowl hashtag.
Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook for roughly $1 billion, in a deal officially closed last month, now has more than 100 million registered users.
"That means people were not only interested in it, but they were documenting it," Systrom says, adding that the hurricane illuminated shifting tides within social media. "It's a participatory activity, not purely consumption."
"That's a really interesting moment in human history. I like to compare instagram to the Library of Congress," which has recorded some 14 million photos. he continues: "In some ways, Instagram does the same thing."
"Sandy was the largest event to take place and be captured on Instagram. It was maybe the largest event captured, ever. And that's an interesting thing to think about."
Even major media outlets found ways to use Instagram during Sandy. Time magazine, for instance, used the app to connect with its readers.
"We just thought this is going to be the fastest way we can cover this and it's the most direct route," Time's director of photography said. "It's wasn't like, 'Oh, this is a trend, let's assign this on Instagram.' It was about how quickly can we get pictures to our readers."
Systrom spoke just days after the New York Times reported that Twitter is working on its own Instagram-like photo-filter tool. And Twitter itself has released statistics that show people sent more than 20 million Tweets about the storm--tracked based on instances of the terms "sandy" and "hurricane" in individual tweets--between October 27 and November 1.
Beyond simple documentation, though, Systrom says Instagram provided a helpful tool: During the storm, users uploaded geo-tagged photos of gas stations that were still open.
"We're only beginning to understand how to design for these devices," Systrom says.
The sheer volume of photos captured also illustrated Instagram's biggest challenge: data. Just like Napster dealt with slow download, Instagram contends with mobile user's data limits that slow the experience of Instagram.
"The one thing that will keep us back is the ability to get data to the phone quickly and reliably," Systrom says. "That's where we're at with digital media. It needs to be fast and seamless--consume more instantly."