Remember when we used to poke fun at MySpace mirror “selfies” and Facebook duck faces? Apple’s Photobooth application claimed the self-respect of many with its thermal filter. But in October of 2010, an iPhone app launched that replaced all these photo trends as subjects of intense mockery—Instagram.
If you’ve been living under a rock, and you somehow haven’t managed to take a #selfie of that life choice, let me break it down: spurred by the movement of reclaiming outdated photographic techniques and looks, Instagram applies a variety of filters that essentially downgrade the quality of images taken on mobile devices by overexposing, over-saturating, toning, and boosting contrast. These effects, in combination with the square aspect ratio, give the photos the nostalgic feel of old Polaroid and Instamatic 126 film.
Initially, Instagram was funny because it was written off into a category of hipster bullshit—20-somethings taking artsy pictures of themselves in Ray Bans drinking PBRs and looking stoically away from the camera. But it turns out that hipsters aren’t the only ones who want to participate in this nostalgia culture—as evidenced by the 40 million Instagram photographs uploaded daily and its 150 million active monthly users.
Part of the brilliance of Instagram and its app counterparts—Hipstamatic, VSCO, etc.—lies in their sincere ability to make photos trendier than a smartphone camera would manage otherwise. It’s for this very reason that many of us who love to hate on Instagram still use this application in the way that we take #selfies while listening to #SELFIE (read: follow me @criswilcoxon). These may not be higher quality images, but they are certainly a la mode and this seduces us into believing we are capable of instant Ansel Adams landscapes.
We’re a culture obsessed by the instantaneous—we want instant food, instant transportation, instant amusement, instant sexual gratification—so it makes sense that we should also want instant art. Unfortunately, this has led to an upsurge of increasingly meaningless content on the Internet. Lured by the aesthetic effects of Instagram filters, newfound Instaholics are incessantly taking pictures of the menial aspects of their days. Suddenly, everything we do becomes “art”—and it feeds into our narcissism—the followgram.me feeds are called “vanity pages.”
These Instaholics takes pictures of what they eat, what they read, where they sleep, what they’re wearing, where they’re going, who’s they’re with, what they’re sitting on, who they’re sitting on, at any given moment, for the purpose of amassing as many social media brownie points as possible. The assumption is that these aspects of their lives—pixelated photographs of Starbucks cups and In-N-Out Burgers with Lo-Fi filters—are worth your time. To the chorus of who-gives-a fuck’s, the answer is: you. Instaholicism is created and enabled by attention, and it’s clear from the sheer volume of app users that attention is being given. And the more attention spent on this kind of pointless imagery, the more we neglect thoughtful and high-quality images from artists in the same way that we might pick the cheap thrills of watching exploitative reality TV rather than a film.
It is certainly elitist to assert that a high production value is a necessity for art, and it is important that Instagram provides a means of creative outlet for those who desire and can’t afford the aesthetics of the rather expensive and archaic films Instagram imitates (although smartphones and iPads aren’t cheap and thereby using Instagram is, in part, a privileged activity). Ultimately, the argument comes down to the intentionality behind the images. The most problematic part of Instagram is the instant part—not all of our thoughts are gems. There are plenty of Instagram-based photographers and artists (check out users anasbarros, 13thWitness, or visit the site Twenty20) who think out and compose their images in the same manner that any other artist would, and it just so happens that Instagram is their medium. They are not the problem.
In this age of excessive media, we can’t afford the indiscretion of Instaholics. These images crowd us, consume us, and hinder the discovery of new talent amongst a sea of what can at best be called mediocrity, and at worst, thoughtless, washed-out images of times and places that we would, and should, have otherwise forgotten. Despite this, no one gets to dictate what art is, and art is certainly not the only reason to take a photograph. If you’ve convinced that everyone else needs an Instagram’d picture of your daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner, by all means, knock yourself out. But a picture isn’t worth a thousand words anymore, so upload responsibly. Don’t donate to the Internet an image you wouldn’t want to sift through if it was someone else’s shit.