Instagraming Our Way to a More Mediocre World

(May 2012)

Last week, after much deliberation, I downloaded the Instagram app for my trusty iPhone.

While I normally resist using anything that’s “trending,” my friends Jenna and Morgan spoke highly of the aforementioned, so I thought I’d dip my toes in the waters of Mainstream Social Media and check it out.

It has been four days. I am both fascinated and somewhat horrified. I’m also completely hooked.

For those of you (e.g. the elderly, people in comas) who aren’t familiar with the conceit behind it, Instagram is a combination photo-taking and photo-sharing application used exclusively by iOS and Android users that allows you to take a photo on your smartphone, then immediately edit it with one of several filters designed to make your photo look artsy (read: crappy), then upload it to Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. (There’s also support for sharing to Foursquare or Flickr, but let’s not get too crazy, here.)

“Sweet – that ragged border makes me look much more sullen and angsty!”

Most of these filters strive to give your photos a blurred, washed out, or otherwise distressed look. This process puzzles me for the same reason that I don’t understand why hipsters buy Holga cameras at Urban Outfitters for ridiculous prices and then proceed to take shitty photos with them. In the world of smartphone photography, this strikes me as especially perverse, since I personally waited years for a phone that actually had a semi-passable camera built into it. After waiting for well-exposed, sharp still images, we immediately turn around and filter the crap out of our pictures so they look like they were taken with the cheap LG flip phone I had back in 2005.

The reason, I suppose, is relatively simple: people are terrible photographers. Instagram allows you to reduce the legibility of your work to the point where you can pass off your mistakes as intentional artistry. Photo’s too dim? Overexposed? Out of focus? No problem! Just Instagram the shit out of that sucker, and you can tell everyone that your photo represents the inner turmoil you felt that day.

It is worth noting, I suppose, that Instagram also allows you to take photos from your past and crappify them, too. Jenna, being a purist, rejects this notion – she says that your shitty photos must be freshly taken. The past, in all its sharply focused, well-lit glory cannot be revised to suit your newfound hipster sensibilities.

The other delightful thing about Instagram is that you can totally creep on other people’s Instagram posts. Aside from a handful of ubiquitous celebrities who treat Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as completely interchangeable, the users of Instagram can be broken down into two main groups: Hipsters and 17 Year-Old Girls. (See diagram below.) Hipsters tend to post lots of blurry “artistic photos” and ironic photos of things they find in their day-to-day travels. (“A payphone? How bourgeoisie!”) 17 Year-Old Girls tend to post lots of photos of themselves hanging out at the pool and or making duck lips at the camera and flashing the peace sign. Hipsters like the service because they love mediocrity; 17 Year-Old Girls like it because, well – they have no taste. Well done, America. Ansel Adams would have been so proud.

Regardless, it’s rather fascinating to see what other people post and consider to be artistic. You can follow your friends, you can follow celebrities, and you can follow random strangers who like to post photos of what they’ve eaten recently. More importantly, you can get your friends to follow YOU on Instagram, and thereby help perpetuate your 15 Minutes of Internet Notoriety. Within hours of setting up my Instagram account, I found myself checking my account to see if anyone new was following me.

Say what you will about Instagram, it’s a popular and a fast-growing phenomena, and one that sadly I’ve fallen prey to. At least until I finish setting up my Pinterest account.

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