For better or for worse, Instagram has changed the way we live our lives. Before we had to engage only in the immediate world around us. Now we must engage on a whole new plane of communication or fear being left behind. Social media has made it so we can make and nurture friendships across the globe: from groups and classes of people that we would otherwise never communicate with. Instagram itself claims that its mission is to “strengthen relationships through shared experiences.”
There are the negative aspects of these shared experiences too, though. Together with its parent corporation, Facebook, it has ushered in an era of narcissism where we are more obsessed with getting likes than with talking and noticing the reality around us. Likes have become a drug, with a hit of dopamine every time a chime goes off. We are addicts, repeatedly drawn into this world where we are the kings and queens.
It’s hard to remember a time without mobile phones and social media. When we couldn’t check maps and play scavenger hunts for the top 7 best Instagrammable locations of the city we are in. It’s probably even harder for younger folk to even imagine the existence of such a world. Just as alien a place as it is for pre-millenials to imagine a world without cars and planes. Mobile phone apps have all become a basic, intrinsic part of our lives. They have even changed our values, ethics, and storytelling, and created new needs and desires where there previously were none.
How Instagram changed how we take photos
Photography was the domain of professionals, a world the lens-less laity would only witness through magazines like Vogue, museums, or large, oversized books perched on coffee tables. Instagram has changed both how people take photographs and how we see photography. It not only brings the field into our everyday lives, but also both opens it up to the many. And to many more, it eviscerates photography from the position of high art that it once held, a world where only the likes of Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, or Robert Frank dwell(ed).
But now it’s a world at everyone’s hands. Annoyingly to past professionals, with filters anyone can take photos the same way that it would take others of past ages hours, days, or even weeks to set up and capture. What does it matter anyway? The composition is only worth a tap of the thumb, a number on the screen, and eventual passage into the abyss of a million photos and photographers-who-could-have-been.
Even more disheartening to people with a serious passion in photography, is what becomes viral. People are distracted by virality, and they become obsessed with pop culture’s own fleeting obsessions. But even with Instagram, longevity is the true key. Virality can help with longevity, but once a photograph has passed from the IG zeitgeist, the photographer has likely passed into oblivion as well. A one-hit-wonder only remembered in Buzzfeed listicles, looked up 20 years later in a “Top 50 whatever happened to these people” article. A photographer who consistently puts out engaging content though – and engages with an ever-increasing involved group of fans – is that much more likely to succeed then even the most viral cat picture out there. This same is true for brands – the more they attempt to engage with their audience, the more they will succeed.
Engagement isn’t just a myth.
Instagram’s own algorithm may have the highest influence on how photography is being shaped. Their algorithm, according to the company itself in an interview with TechCrunch, rates posts on interest, recency, and relationships. Supposedly it uses machine learning to dig up how much it thinks you’d be interested in something. But what it generally spells out is that things that have more likes will get more likes, and those things need to be recent – something that has made hashtag curator-gatekeepers that much more important sometimes than the skilled artists themselves.
Besides taking excessive pictures of cats, Instagram has changed the format and style that we approach photography with. Photography as an art has always been about engaging the eye and questioning standards. In the age of Instagram, however, it has in some ways been toned down, sometimes it’s even less about engagement and more about simple pleasure. A flatlay or pasted bunny ears and freckles aren’t about questioning your deep values, but about having a bit of fun and silliness.
And political activism now isn’t even about taking clever pictures. Sometimes it’s about not taking pictures, as the recent Black Lives Matter “blackout” day revealed. Sometimes it’s just about words and a nice font.
The medium has even changed the shape of pictures. Ever since the decline of Polaroid pictures, the common photograph has been in the 3:2 format. Now the square has returned, and the way we frame pictures in our own minds that must fit into a square, because – where is it going? – Instagram. Ironically, this has also led to a rebirth for the classic Polaroid. In 2015, they changed and started to allow other formats, but let’s be honest, the 1:1 still reigns supreme. Thankfully for Polaroid’s sake.
Subjects matter too. It’s less about fun times with friends and more about what’s going to get more likes. That means more backsides facing amazing landscapes, more self-involvement, more trying to seem artistic. People changing their poses for hours just to get the right shot for their IG feed, with the right hair, lips, blush, light, and so on, not realizing that professional studios (which also post to IG) often have million dollar lighting rigs, fans, gimbals, things-attached-to-wheels, and lenses and not just a lucky moment of sunshine and iPhone.
This all isn’t to say there’s no more room for the professional photographer, but it has created another field to navigate, and on some planes it’s made exposure for professionals easier. Traditional gatekeepers like museum curators, gallerists, newspaper and magazine editors still exist, but, according to Jordan Teicher of Popular Photography, with Instagram “photographers have found that amassing a vast following can provide a fast track to those power players who, in previous generations, would have been elusive, if not impossible, targets.” So on the one hand there’s more competition, but on the other, there’s more access to those hard-to-reach cultural controllers.
How Instagram changed how we take videos
A few years ago in 2015, Instagram rolled out their video format, and with increased competition, they’ve been diversifying how they approach this as well. Just like how it brought photography to the masses, it began to bring videography to the masses as well. Droves of people who were never inclined to do a vblog have come into the limelight.
Video started largely in reaction to Snapchat, when Instagram first started to allow 60-second videos in feed and created a mode called Stories. Both of which have focused on bringing vertical-form filming to the front. This allowed for a bit longer explainer videos and ads, and unlocked some additional creative potential. People began posting party scenes, vblog advertisements, and how-to-videos. It opened up even further the way we use Instagram and our phones, allowing us to capture more than just a picture, but to share moments – concerts, beaches, and so on.
The 60-second video was such a success and how it was used in their Stories rollout, that Instagram opened IGTV, allowing for even longer videos, giving an additional platform for vlogs and longform advertisements, and also paved a path for user monetization. “We had seen how Stories had grown, and we’d seen how video was flourishing on Stories, but we also saw that it was limiting what people could do in terms of video,” said Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram in an interview with Refinery29. “One of the things with video in Feed that I think has been really hard for us is that when you’re in the mode of ‘I just want quick hits’ and you hit a video, you’re probably like, ‘okay, five seconds, then I’m going to move on.’”
Though IGTV’s focus was on the vertical ratio, the longer nature of the form allows for people to revert to the horizontal screen. This though is largely up to personal preference and people have continued using the vertical nature that was introduced in Stories, as Instagram itself pushes the vertical form.
With further encroachment on its territory from the likes of companies like TikTok, Instagram also responded by making Reels: Even shorter, super easy-to-make 15-second videos that stressed their “lofi” nature.
With IGTV and Reels, it meant a widening involvement on the video format, but it also meant that people were making videos off of Instagram, adding a soundtrack, and re-uploading them – getting people knee deep in the confusing world of royalties. In response to this, with their release of the Reels service, they also began to implement their own limited music services. The disadvantage of using them over a service like Create Music is that it’s limited and everyone else is using it (because it’s free, after all). The other downside of using Instagram’s music – rather than preparing the video with a 3rd party editor and putting the music as a separate track – is that it ends up covering up all other sound in the video.
Just like with photography, it has made the world of video more accessible. People have learned to do editing tricks with just their smart phone, make low budget engaging content from lip-syncing to dancing to how-to videos. But it’s also still very much appeasing a consumer world. Consumption at times focuses more on the quantity than necessarily the quality, allowing for people to scroll all day while people speak out attempting to get someone to listen but still knowing that few are actually paying attention. Everyone’s too busy advertising their own world, after all.
The Garbage Dump of History
Where are we left, now that we have such a wide array of visual content and stimulation at our fingertips? If anything, we’re left with the garbage bin of history. This isn’t in reference to the quality of what we’re viewing, but rather a slice of the realm in which we exist. To an archeologist, a garbage dump is a goldmine. It provides snippets and views into the every day life of that time period. Instagram is fulfilling that very function today.
Instagram in a short thought, has changed the way we see photography, video, and the world. In a sense it has brought art to the masses and given everyone more keen eyes on how things look, while the social sensibilities of the form have also expanded definitions of beauty. But it also has made – or at least reinforced – the short attention span of the spirit of the age, whether from the latest IG post or the most recent socio-political calamity. Where even an on-going war, famine, or detentions causing thousands of deaths and affecting even more lives can be so last week.
But by creating this awareness of how things are done and generating a certain level of interest in the crafts, it also allows people to see what others are doing, to improve their own skills, and gives people a way to share at a scale previously unimaginable. Instagram for many is the gateway into the more serious arts of photography and videography, and that in itself can’t be a bad thing.