Friday, May 4, 2012

Much ado about Instagram, part 2

I've been cloistered away in academic hell finishing a chapter about the Brownie camera for a book about design icons, which is exactly what got me thinking about Instagram in the first place. I had read a post on A Photo Editor called "Instagram Joins The Brownie As The Next Great Photography Disruptor." Naturally, I was intrigued. Turns out, his post didn't really talk about the Brownie, but it did get me thinking. How is the camera that brought snapshot photography to the masses similar to Instagram? I left my first reaction thoughts in this comment:

The Brownie made photography affordable ($1 vs. $25 for a “real Kodak”) and was initially marketed to children (Eastman was surprised at the number of adults buying the camera for themselves, and shifted marketing accordingly). Eastman had hoped to use the Brownie as a gateway drug to the more expensive Kodak line. For most people who are interested enough in photography to be reading this site, using Instagram would be like stepping down from Kodak to Brownie. But for all those Instagram users, it might follow the “Plant the Brownie Acorn and the Kodak Oak Will Grow” pattern: the Instagram user might move on to film or Photoshop. A big difference, however, is that if Instagram proves to be a “gateway drug” for higher end photography, then it’s a gateway that leads away from Instagram.

It would be a stretch to claim that there were some kind of direct bloodline from the origins of snapshot photography to Instagram. Even the "disruptor" narrative has its limits. Still, we have to organize thought somehow, so for the sake of comparison, let's look at the problems Eastman was trying to solve and the problems Systrom wanted to solve (knowing full well that it's all really about money).

Eastman wanted to sell film, and the best way to do that was to create a market for it. His big breakthrough was the Kodak camera in 1888. For $25 (still a luxury item price range), people with no skill in processing could get a camera pre-loaded with 100 exposures of Kodak film, take the photos (literally, it was point and shoot—not even a viewfinder to look through), and then ship the whole camera back to Rochester, New York for processing. In about a week, you'd get your prints and your camera back with a new roll of film—all for $10 (still, not cheap). Eastman completely took away the technical burden of processing.

In 1900, Eastman introduced the Brownie camera for only $1 (about the price of a men's shirt). It only came loaded with 6 exposures, and you had to load your own film, but it was all simple enough that he  marketed it to kids. While the Kodak sold 5,000 in the first nine months, the Brownie sold 150,000 in the first year alone, and it just kept going from there. I won't go into detail here, but let's just say that Eastman solved his problem. He dominated the worldwide film market, made people think about their lives in terms of "Kodak moments," and thoroughly democratized photography. Mission accomplished.

Now on to Instagram...

According to co-founder, Kevin Systrom (you can view the whole video at the bottom of this post), they set out to solve 3 problems:

1. cell phone photos were "uninspiring"
2. people wanted to share their photos
3. it took "an eternity" to upload photos

They did their homework and discovered that the top 10 free photo apps were all "filter" apps.
"I guarantee you, every single person that signed up for Instagram on that first day thought it was a filter app, and that's it," remarks Systrom. But the "filter" aspect (which I talked about in part 1) is not what it was really about, and it's certainly not why Facebook paid 1 billion dollars to acquire Instagram. It's really all about sharing photos. I'm not on Instagram (yet) so I can't speak from experience, but to hear Systrom speak about it, you would think you were about to embark on the "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland. He calls it "one of the first  truly international social networks" because the means of communication is visual rather than verbal:
"Imagine a service that collects all of the visual data that gets produced all around the world, so that you can tune in to any place on earth and see exactly what's happening. What happens in the world when you take all of that data and combine it in a visual network? [...]It's a universal media that allows you to explore the world, and that's something that the world has been asking for for a long time."
Wow! Talk about having a grand vision! Is that what the world has been asking for? A service that collects all of the visual data in the world and let's anyone tune in to anywhere? And here I thought it was just about making your crappy cell phone photos look like crappy film photos.  Michel Foucault is no doubt looking down from that great panopticon in the sky, shaking his head slowly side to side, and saying "I knew it! Don't say I didn't warn you!" (or rather, Je le savais! Ne dites pas que je ne vous avais pas avertis! No one speaks English in heaven. ;) )


michelle said...

I'm really not sure how I feel about Instagram, but I sure do love your last paragraph.

Unknown said...

I avoided it for so long. I did not understand what all the hype was about. Now I get it : ) It is fun and easy and really great to be able to see what other people are doing all around the world at any given moment! The main reason I was avoiding it is because I desperately hate 70's style editing...and it seemed to me that every single person edited their pictures like that on instagram. You will have to let me know what you think when you join.

Unknown said...

I'm an avid fan of instagram and one thing that I usually do when I opened my account is I search and viewed photos from the other
instagram users.