Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Much ado about Instagram, part 1

Ever since Facebook spent 1 billion to acquire Instagram, it seems everyone must do a post on it. I'm pretty sure that if you have a photoblog and don't do an Instagram post, then you are automatically chosen to represent your district in the reaping. Since my archery skills aren't what they were at my 12th birthday party, I'm afraid I'm going to have to do a post.

First, a disclaimer: I have actually never used Instagram, so my knowledge of it comes from reading, from Pinterest, and from Shep, who cuts my hair.

So, what is Instagram? kidding. sort of.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's two things: 1. a free app to make your crappy cell phone photos look vintagey and 2. a visually-based social network

A lot of people I have read tend to focus only on the first part, and here's the gist of what they say:
Instagram gives digital photos the look of analog photos, often exaggerating flaws such as lens aberrations, fading, and color casts because either:
a ) We live in a soulless digital world, walking among the decades-old ruins we inherited from poststructuralist theorists, eviscerated of every last shred of analog "authenticity." Those tortured, yellowed pixels are the visual manifestation of our 21st century mal du siècle
b )  We "filter" our lives, so Instagram helps us enact some sort of "meta-commentary" by adopting a set of aesthetic commonplaces for various declensions of nostalgia. According to the Atlantic, for example, the Nashville filter is for "ironic nostalgia," the 1977 filter is for "in-your-face nostalgia" and the Lord Kelvin filter is for "actual nostalgia."
OR simply, 
c ) Cell phone photos are by nature ugly, and Instagram helps them look cool. 
One of the problems with choice "a" is that it tends to ignore the long history of nostalgia. We didn't suddenly get nostalgic when computers were invented. Trust me, I'm restraining myself from giving the entire history of nostalgia here. I spent 5 years putting together an exhibit called "Nostalgia & Technology" and I'm writing a book on the topic that deals with everything from sewing machines to cell phones (if you're inclined to read academic stuff, feel free to check out my article in the Journal of Popular Culture. It's fairly readable, considering the genre.) But where was I? Oh yeah, the problem of assuming that we suddenly got nostalgic. Did anyone out there see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris? (If you didn't, you should, it's very charming). Was I the only one who was not shocked to learn that someone in the roaring twenties might think that the belle époque was better (and so on, into the past)? We love past-ness. Choice "a" only gets interesting when you get into specifics—you know, compare/contrast with all of the other historical examples of nostalgia.

Choice "b" ventures even more into academic territory, and I have to admit that I would love to read someone who has really developed that "take" on it. In her Buzzfeed article (my favorite so far), Amanda Petrusich starts to go there. When people get into "meta" this and "meta" that, there's always the danger of completely losing your audience, or coming across as pretentious, or looking like a grad student who just deciphered Frederic Jameson's obscurantist prose for the first time.

Choice "c" is what most people, including Instagram (co)founder Kevin Systrom. In part 2 (next time), I'll get into some of the things I learned from watching the 46 minute interview on Youtube. Until then, check out Stuff Instagramers Say:


irene said...

To be honest, I think Instagram is actually more used in the social network way than you think. The photos are a means to an end. It's a way to show people what you're doing, where you are, and to see that from your "friends" as well. The smaller percentage of the people (in my case anyway) that I follow are people that I don't actually know (Barack Obama or Garance Doré). The number of engagements, wedding, baby announcements, vacations that I see on Instagram come in much higher volume than a "pretty picture", although those are in there too. I do think that the filters definitely make a cell-phone picture look better (? for lack of a better word), but I think the social aspect of it shouldn't be overlooked. In my experience, anyway. To be honest, those two things obviously overlap, but I actually really like Instagram because you can share a picture of with a smaller social circle than Facebook. Which I think is part of its value as well. Anyway, I've said too much. You should probably try it though maybe, if you have friends on this thing. It's not terrible.


marc said...

I agree that the social network part is why it's so big-- especially since there were already 10 filters apps before Instagram. But that's coming in part 2.

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