An Homage to Instagram (or Why I Have It So Much Easier Than Meryl Streep)

I was catching up with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago when our conversation turned to social media. I was sharing my recent bewilderment over a mutual friend’s use of Facebook. While easygoing and sharp-witted in person, our friend’s posts struck me as somewhat antiseptic — as if he had installed a high-priced media consultant at the helm. It wasn’t that he was simply adhering to the unspoken rules that make a lot of sense when your roster of friends includes your girlfriend’s mother or the piano teacher you had when you were six; rather, it seemed that he took great care in polishing his personal brand to a finish so glossy it had practically become a mirror. And in many ways, his status updates had become exactly that for me — revealing little about his life while continuously forcing me to reflect on my own social media behaviors.

In the time since, I’ve become somewhat of a regular user of a number of the services I set out to engage with — Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (although it’s debatable as to how one actually defines active engagement) — while never so much as enjoying a second date with either Delicious or Flickr. It also goes without saying that I use countless other products where social features play either a significant or central role in their user experiences. But because I’m someone who enjoys inflicting pop-psychology tests (like thisthis, or even this) on myself and others, the other day I found myself wondering which product I would grab, were I to discover my house of social media on fire. I was surprised to realize that this hypothetical question didn’t immediately send me into a Sophie’s Choice-level fit of angst — in fact, it wasn’t a remotely agonizing question at all.

Simple: I’d scoop Instagram into my arms and watch from the lawn as the others went up in flames.

Of course I’m being hyperbolic; these products obviously aren’t interchangeable, and they have vastly differing value propositions and places within our lives. Truthfully, I enjoy content and repartee exchanged across most forms of social media. I use Twitter to discover notable content created or curated by others and occasionally bemoan the dearth of kale salad. I use Tumblr as a verbal sketchpad to force myself to publicly excavate half-baked thoughts. But as an avid snowboarding friend of mine once told me — skiing might never have existed had snowboarding been invented first. Similarly, I wonder how much our collective sharing tendencies would differ today had Instagram been invented pre-FB. In the mere two years that I’ve been a user, the Facebook experience has become increasingly media-rich — one need only to compare The Wall to The Timeline to note just how prominently imagery figures into the latter. But there are myriad reasons why the razor-sharp focus of Instagram (the popularity of which was previously addressed by Nate Bolt) is all I really need when it comes to social experiences rooted in basic but deeply human desires to discover, share, and connect with others. What follows is an attempt to explain why.

1. Instagram acknowledges the beauty of a fleeting moment.

Despite the technophobic’s fear that the proliferation of social media will inevitably result in a doomsday scenario of extreme antisocial behaviors IRL, I’m not one to believe that a Facebook exchange threatens to replace the convivial dinner and bottle of wine enjoyed amongst friends. Any digital form of communication — be it a post on your colleague’s timeline, a Tweet, or even the occasional long-winded email — is fleeting in nature. Regardless of how adept one is at verbal storytelling, it can never fully replicate that of an actual real-life experience. It merely offers us a glimpse into another person’s head, heart, or life, and frankly, I’m hard pressed to think of a medium more well-suited to capture, express, or share these ephemeral moments than that of a single image. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has particular resonance in this regard.

2. Instagram leads with the right brain but leaves room for the left.

Imagery is, by definition, a visceral medium — the left brain “reads” and recognizes an image’s subject, but the right brain perceives the more emotive qualities of an image. The brilliance of the Instagram user experience is that it’s beautifully economical in terms of functionality, but one in which the opportunity for authorship feels virtually limitless. Core features include a number of filters that both beautify and impart a dreamy haze, elevating original photography from the too true nature of most snapshots (tickling the right brain), and an option to comment allows users to both title their images and engage in dialogue with others (providing an outlet for the left). But because of the scale at which images are presented in the app as well as the order in which text appears below (number of Likes followed by caption and/or comments), the experience is one in which the user is given the space to fully absorb an image visually before processing the verbal cues beneath. It’s a user experience that is finely attuned to — and mindful of — the way in which we perceive, consume, and interpret imagery — regardless of where we might live or the language we might speak.

3. Instagram provides limited optionality but manages to reveal an astonishing amount about us.

Unlike other forms of social media, Instagram feels like a direct window into another’s soul, which is incredibly refreshing in an era in which big brands are expected to actively maintain Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Much of this can be attributed to the personal and evocative nature of photography, but much can be gleaned by reading between the lines, by observing the choices users make—either reflexively or consciously — when using Instagram. Subject matter (e.g. self-portraits on good hair days, ramen dinners, latte art, naughty cats) aside, it is astonishing to consider the variables at one’s disposal given the focused feature set—each with its own accompanying set of interpretations. Adding a caption to an image signals a creator’s desire to communicate with the viewer; leaving one off invites curiosity and encourages interpretation. Posting an image of a spectacle as it unfolds can feel like reportage from the front lines while #latergrams can celebrate nostalgic moments from the past. Declarations around equipment in a user’s bio divulges how he or she views his or her own creative endeavors — citing use of a high-end DSLR trumpets a serious hobbyist or a professional at work, while “iPhone 4s only” is a pledge to embrace a more modern, frictionless approach to image creation. Regardless, simply being granted access to another’s images always feels like a privilege, and in this way, connections formed between strangers (at times, across vast social or geographic divides) can feel far more intimate — and enlightening — than Facebook banter with the closest of friends.

So while I’m hardly looking to toss a lit match onto my house of social media anytime soon — I’ll sleep more soundly at night knowing Instagram is tucked away safely beneath my pillow. Just in case.

14 March 2012