VSCO shot to fame as a hot summer meme. Can it keep the momentum and its soul?

VSCO shot to fame as a hot summer meme. Can it keep the momentum and its soul?
VSCO got its start in 2011 as a software program to help professional and hobby photographers edit and enhance their work, using both traditional touch-up tools and more creative ones like gauzy, colourful filters. In the past six months, it has become famous for something else.

Credit the #VSCOgirls.

Through little effort of its own, VSCO was catapulted into the global limelight this summer. Teenagers and young women discovered that VSCO’s filters perfectly captured a certain carefree, beachy aesthetic, inspiring thousands of snapshots of long-haired girls clutching Hydro Flask water bottles and sporting Birkenstock sandals to pose in sun-kissed, wind-swept photos. As the trend gained momentum, it also turned into a meme, often coming off as a parody of itself. Posts tagged #VSCOgirl flooded Instagram and TikTok, and the theme even showed up at the Global Climate Strike.

The free publicity has drawn in a new cohort of users who saw the hashtag on their social media feeds and tracked down the VSCO app. They liked what they found— not only original photo-editing tools but also an online, low-pressure community of creatives. Think of it as Instagram, but with no likes or follower counts.

Joel Flory, co-founder of Visual Supply Co., as it’s officially known, isn’t complaining. The surge in interest has boosted the app to No. 7 in its category on Google Play and Apple Inc.’s App Store, from a rank in the double digits in May. Twenty-one million, or more than 10 per cent, of the app’s total 200 million downloads since 2011 have come from May 1 through the end of September, according to researcher App Annie.

As more young people flock to VSCO, the challenge for the company will be to leverage the audience it’s gained from Instagram and TikTok to keep and extend this new user base. And convince more people to sign up for a $20 (U.S.) annual subscription — without sacrificing its status as a creative sanctuary.

Flory started VSCO — based in Oakland, Calif., and pronounced to rhyme with “Frisco” — with Greg Lutze as a place for creative professionals like themselves. In the beginning, VSCO sold filters for photographers using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to help enhance images and streamline the editing process. In 2012, they launched a mobile app and made money by charging for individual filters or packages of them. Next came the VSCO Grid, an in-house social network that allowed users to follow each other and share their work. Eventually the company added more social-media type features, such as the ability to message people and to republish other’s posts. Even as it became more like Instagram, VSCO made a conscious decision to draw some distinct lines.

Some of VSCO’s 20 million weekly users have indeed found value in sharing their personal posts outside the social media circus. Jesse Calderon, 19, who has been using VSCO since 2014, said that when she was in high school people used it as a “secret Instagram,” because it was a more carefree space. Eleanor Larson, 18, said she’s had VSCO since junior high and after starting out using it just to edit photos, she now also uses it to post digital art and journal entries. VSCO is for her “work in progress,” whereas Instagram is for “finished products,” she said.
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