Instagram: picture perfect or photo fad?


Apps such as Instagram have replaced the old-fashioned photograph album and are also changing what it is we choose to record of our experience

BEFORE YOU eat your lunch, photograph it. There’s a dramatic-looking sky, out with the iPhone. Check out this foam heart on top of a latte. Look at my dog. Who would have thought all that was worth a billion dollars? Every day, its 30 million users around the world clutter Instagram with photographs of what’s in their eye line right now, cropping and filtering images to make them look pretty.

The forecast that niche social networks would become more popular as Facebook reached saturation point was initially thought to centre on the idea that people with certain interests would gravitate towards certain spaces, such as the gays hanging out in gay bars, rockers in dive bars, and nerds in the library. Instead, it’s the elements of social networks themselves that have fractured.

Users are gravitating towards specific tools that do specific things, not necessarily specific places for specific people. And so mobile-dating apps have attempted to harness Facebook flirting. Talking about what you’re up to on a status update has been taken over by tweeting. Photo albums became apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic. Sharing cool videos and pictures that aren’t necessarily your own became Tumblr. By buying up the fragments, such as the $1bn it paid for Instagram this week, Facebook can look to piece together a bigger puzzle than it has already created.

The obsession with letting the world know about you has evolved from “I’m here”, to “I’m here and this is what I’m saying”, and now “I’m here and this is what I’m seeing”. Instagram is part of sharing on a web that is increasingly visual. Tumblr, with its 47 million blogs, 18 billion posts and more than 40 million posts added every day, trades on pictures. Pinterest is growing at a rapid rate, particularly among women, who are pinning, repinning and liking images on a vast online corkboard. More niche visual social networks, such as The Fancy, are securing impressive funding – it got $10 million last August from the unlikely source of multi-billion euro French fashion multinational PPR.

Social networks are becoming a relentlessly chattering version of “show and tell”. Look at my salad. Look at this sunset. Look, it’s the Liffey. A quick scroll through my own Instagram feed at this minute reveals a puppy, a person’s shadow, College Green under a blue sky, another puppy, a self-portrait, a bag of Tayto, someone’s dinner, a crowd at a gig, a new leather jacket and two fillets of what look like monkfish. The same elements are recycled again: cute pets and kids, food and landscapes illustrating who we are, what we’re consuming and where we are.

Instagram also makes photography truly disposable and utterly transient. Few people have hardcopy photo albums any more. Their crinkling plastic and faux-leather covers have been consigned to childhood memories. A hard copy photo is something of a novelty, in an age when re-issued Polaroid cameras are purchased somewhat ironically, and the idea of using film is almost seen as eccentric.

But as digital photography did away with the physical photo album, photos archived online in our Bebo profiles and Facebook albums bore a remarkable similarity to photographs we took back when cameras had film: nights out, holiday snaps, weddings.

But photosharing apps such as Instagram have created a new genre of photography. In groups of people, iPhones silently track a metre radius to see what can be snapped, filtered and shared. Instagram favours stuff rather than people. Can you imagine opening a photo album only to find cappuccinos, burritos and clouds? Of course not, but Instagram users are creating stock photographs of their everyday lives.

If Facebook is an archive base where users curate their own identities, then Instagram is about the now. The fact that it’s mobile in every sense of the word is key. You don’t have to stick a memory card into your laptop and upload pictures into a Facebook album any more.

The success of social networks such as Grindr and Instagram, and to a lesser extent Foursquare, as solely mobile entities reinforces how social-network users, while not completely gravitating away from non-mobile bases, are increasingly utilising social networks as “live” outlets.

This week, Matthew Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate, forecasted that in five years, all phones will be smartphones. This came on the back of Jenna Wortham’s remarks in the New York Times that the traditional business strategy of establishing a presence on the web and then coming up with a version of it for mobile devices has been flipped on its head, asking, “Who needs the web?”

The velocity with which information is digested in real life and exhibited online has been condensed to seconds, and Instagram creates a pretty flipbook of what its users got up to that day, only to be refreshed a few hours later, with more images in one’s feed depending on who you’re following.

Social networking has made public sharing an automatic human behaviour. Instagram, with its simple interface, retro app logo, and fun filters that erase the chores of making a simple photo look extraordinary, somehow works better than its predecessors. Its 30 million users know that. And so does Facebook.

Insta-Pro Marc O'Sullivan

I have been a professional photographer for nearly 20 years. I started in the darkroom days. I remember the joy of heading into Kehoes pub on South Anne Street in Dublin with an old Agfa 100 sheet box of photographic paper under my arm with my latest black and white pictures. It would start off with the audience of just my photographer mates at the table, but as the evening wore on my pictures were being passed from the front to the back of the pub and up and down the stairs.

Everyone appreciated the photographs. The act of communal sharing sparked conversations, ideas, rows even lasting friendships. For me, Instagram has reignited that feeling. I get a buzz when someone likes my picture or leaves a nice comment, although Americans say “Nice capture”, which drives me bonkers. I downloaded the app a year ago, Ive uploaded 434 pictures, I have 135 followers and follow 163 people. It is a little photographic community.

Some people take iPhone-only pictures, some go crazy on the filters, some put hours of work on Photoshop into their images, and then upload them – everyone is different. The photographic purists dont like the filters but just because there are filters, it doesnt mean they have to be used. Theres a whole “unfiltered” subset of users.

Filters add contrast or a colour wash, things that can improve a flat picture, things that professional photographers do every day in Photoshop. But its all about the image.

As my day goes by Im always on the look out for something that would make a nice little Instagram picture. On my newsfeed I see pictures by my “friends”. Its so interesting to see snippets of life from different countries, classes and creeds. I think Instagram has got me excited again about creative photography. Its a positive-only experience, which is rare in this world, and its free.

If it makes people appreciate photography and the beauty all around then whats the harm?

Marc O’Sullivan is a professional photographer. He posts his Instagram pictures under the handle sparkyscoops

Anti-Insta Frank Miller

A billion dollars? Wouldn’t give you a tenner for it. I have to guess that the value was based on Facebook’s social-media strategy and not on any quality criteria in the app itself.

In fairness, it is very effective: you can shoot, process and upload your pictures from your phone in seconds to Facebook or Twitter. What drives me insane about Instagram pictures is the “filters” or special effects that people use. It isn’t compulsory to use one of the many “filters” available or to fake on a silly border. This may come as a shock, but you can actually send a photograph that resembles a real photograph and which is a representation of what you saw.

Instead, we are fed a diet of over-processed images that bear no resemblance to any kind of reality. Thus all the Instagrams I see on Facebook have a “retro” look with silly borders, or a cross-processed look that was popular with fashion photographers in the 1990s. Or was it the 1980s? And you daren’t criticise anyone’s Instagrams. It’s the equivalent of calling their child ugly.

However, you have to marvel at the several ironies. The sale comes just three months after Kodak, the inventor of the original handheld box brownie camera, filed for bankruptcy. And a decade or so after Polaroid, whose look and feel is very much emulated in Instagram, first filed for Chapter 11 protection. You have to wonder at the innocence of users giving so much personal information, and photographs are personal information, to Facebook. I’d wonder too about how the images are stored and whether users will always have free access. And back to the valuation – the corporate war for complete access to everyone’s personal information has far more to do with the valuation than the quality of this app. There are other similar apps. This is about delivering total audience penetration to advertisers. When I signed up to check it out, I gave my user name as Unconvinced. Thus I remain.

Frank Miller is an ‘Irish Times’ photographer