Back To Top

Instagram offers a new digital outlet for Korean youth

Korean undergrads turn to Instagram to curate different identities and use hashtag-based searches

In South Korea, university students are emerging as the most active users of Instagram, a photo-sharing app which now has more than 800 million monthly active users worldwide. Its image-based interface and the ‘hashtag (#)’ feature are suited to Korean youths’ desire to express themselves and hunt for hotspots.

With around 70 percent of high school graduates going to university here, undergrad students in Korea consist mainly of those in their early to mid-20s. Koreans in their 20s use Instagram the most compared to other age groups, a trend seen worldwide. 


According to the survey on internet usage by Korea Internet & Security Agency, 36.9 percent of twenty-somethings in Korea used Instagram in 2016. Considering that the total number of monthly active users in Korea surged from 6 million in March 2016 to 10 million last August, the proportion of those in their 20s is expected to have increased further.

Some Korean students tend to open Instagram accounts while they are overseas for travel or on student exchange programs, giving them the opportunity for plenty of “Instagram-worthy” moments. For instance, Kim Seo-hee, an undergraduate student at Yonsei University, started frequently posting on Instagram in the summer of 2016 when she was an exchange student in the US.

“Although I made my account in 2012 when Instagram first launched in Korea, I began to use Instagram more as I took photos of my travels in the US,” said the 22-year-old. “I think a lot of my friends also started Instagram with posts of their travel photographs.”

Kim also took up an interest in makeup during her time in the US, which she regularly posts about, and now has more than 8,000 followers.

According to Kim, Instagram’s intuitive, image-based user interface makes the app particularly attractive. “Since Instagram is more based on photos than texts compared to Facebook, it is more appropriate for posting nice travel pictures or photos of my makeup.”

#MOTD, short for “makeup of the day,” is a hashtag frequently used by makeup aficionados on Instagram like Kim Seo-hee. (Instagram screenshot)
#MOTD, short for “makeup of the day,” is a hashtag frequently used by makeup aficionados on Instagram like Kim Seo-hee. (Instagram screenshot)

Owing much to Instagram’s signature grid-shaped structure filled with images, users can convey the overall feel of their account at a glance. This enables users to shape their identity the way they wish with ease.

A study published in June 2017 supports a similar point. According to a study on 255 university students by Shin Hyun-hee at Sogang University and Kim Kyung-ran at Samsung Economic Research Institute, Instagram was preferred over Facebook for “self-expression.” Instagram provides a convenient way to mold one’s public image more directly and freely with photographs, whereas Facebook recommends users to present information such as their date of birth, address and education status.

Drawn to the advantage of Instagram, some young users go on to express their identities in a number of ways by creating multiple accounts.

Joh Hye-jin, a 22-year old business major at Sungkyunkwan University, has three active Instagram accounts. One has zero followers so that she can post whatever comes to her mind. As an amateur photographer, she has a public account for sharing photos she takes with her camera. Another account is private, followed only by people she knows personally.

Speaking on why she separates her private account from her photography account, Joh said, “I don’t want my personal identity to be shown to people I do not know.” On the other hand, her photography account does not show who the owner is. She said that these separate accounts serve to “portray a different self.”

Kim Seo-hee from Yonsei University has also made another account recently to separate posts about her daily life from her makeup posts. She did not feel comfortable posting her travel photos or bits of her personal life to such a big audience. Like herself, Kim sees more of her peers establishing second accounts to bond more personally with their friends.

Communication with friends tends to be more active in such second accounts. Activities on these accounts are linked to the growing popularity of Instagram Stories among Korean college students.

Instagram Stories allow users to display photos and videos for 24 hours on a bar separate from their feed, deriving much from the pre-existing features of Snapchat.

When Instagram first launched the feature in August 2016, it was used mostly by celebrities wanting to share more of their lives with fans. Now, the feature attracts ordinary student users like Kim and Joh who usually use it on their private accounts.

For Kim, Instagram Stories are suitable for “sharing little things that she wants to show others but are too trivial to post,” like how nice the weather is. Meanwhile, Joh Hye-jin said, “I don’t have to worry about ‘oversharing’ on my Instagram Stories because they do not appear on my followers’ feeds.”

On another note, Instagram’s image-based interface also serves as a powerful search tool when combined with hashtags. 

As of Feb. 1, there are more than 150,000 posts under the tag #Yeonnam-dongCafe in Korean on Instagram. Kim Seo-hee says that with such hashtags, she can find photos of cafes located where she wants to go without
As of Feb. 1, there are more than 150,000 posts under the tag #Yeonnam-dongCafe in Korean on Instagram. Kim Seo-hee says that with such hashtags, she can find photos of cafes located where she wants to go without "having to scroll down loads of text." (Instagram screenshot)

Hashtags, inserted in front of keywords, loosely categorize photos uploaded by different users. Hashtags and the intuitive character of Instagram make it easy for users to find other people sharing their interests. 

Kim says that hashtags such as #MOTD (“makeup of the day”) came in handy when she first became interested in makeup: “(With such hashtags,) I could see the photos that other makeup Instagram accounts were uploading. I started shaping my own account in a similar way, posting photos of my makeup, the products I used or makeup product hauls.” Now, Kim shares information on newly launched makeup products with her followers, although she has never met them in real life.

Young Korean adults increasingly find Instagram to be more helpful than Google or Naver search engines when looking for unique or trendy places to eat out.

“Aren’t hashtags so convenient? You can browse and search related photos via hashtags. I think people use Instagram a lot when looking for places to eat, with hastags like #GangnamMatjib,” said Joh.

“Matjib” is a Korean word referring to famous restaurants acclaimed for their decent quality of food. At the last count, there were more than 500,000 Instagram posts under #GangnamMatjib in Korean. While older generations may stick to portal sites for new information, Korean youths are turning to Instagram to skip the time-consuming process of navigating through unwanted texts and advertisements.

By Cho Yun-myung (
Korea Herald Youtube