Instagram REST API

The term REST API has always intimidated me. If you’ve read any of my blog rants on the subject, technology documentation has a way of taking concepts and ramping up the difficulty level by orders of magnitude; simple examples are often overlooked in favor of showing off the writer’s more advanced knowledge.

Don’t sweat it. I’m gonna break it down to an easy level even I can understand. I Keep It Simple, Stupid.

In a nutshell, a REST API is just a way to get data, in the form of a JSON or XML object, via a URL. The technical definition goes like this:


Representational state transfer (REST) or RESTful web services is a way of providing interoperability between computer systems on the Internet.

Credit to the Wikipedia article here.

APIs Are No Big Whoop

I’ve been using APIs for most of my development career. But in the beginning I was only tasked with formatting and styling data without really knowing where the data was coming from or why I should care to know. This left me feeling out of the loop.

Although at the bigger organizations I’ve worked with API calls are generally handled by backend devs, I think it’s still important for us front-end guys to know how they work. Here’s a simple project for demonstration.

The Instagram API

Instagram has an easy-to-use API you can find here. I’ve used it to grab some photos from my account and share them below.

The first thing is to set up a developer account with Instagram. The only hiccup I faced was with the access token needed for the API call, so I ended up relying on a third party site to generate my token for me. I used Pixel Union and literally just clicked one button to generate a token that I then copied and pasted into my script.

Here’s what the entire API code looks like…

var token = '<generated-token-code-goes-here>',
num_photos = 12;

    url: '' + 'self/media/recent',
    dataType: 'jsonp',
    type: 'GET',
    data: {access_token: token, count: num_photos},
    success: function(data){
        for( x in ){
            $('ul.api-container').append('<li><a href="'[x].images.standard_resolution.url+'" target="_blank"><img src="'[x].images.low_resolution.url+'"></a></li>');
    error: function(data){
        console.log(data); // send the error notifications to console

…and here is what it does.

    What Is Actually Happening?

    As you can see, the ajax call is where the magic happens.

    • The url is where we’re getting data from.
    • The jsonp data type is just a padded type of JSON data that allows you to avoid CORS issues.
    • The type is the http method we’re using to retrieve data.
    • The data object provides our key to establish authorization then the number of pics we want to receive.

    Lastly, the success property uses a callback function to loop through the returned data where we build out some html for display.

    As you can see, there’s really only a few parts to getting data from an API. The url is the door and an access token or license is the key to that door. Although there are many different types of APIs out there they all use the same basic structure.