Laura Pevehouse Thomas

Trying to Understand the Cult of Instagram



I was amazed how yesterday’s announcement that Facebook would buy Instagram overtook my twitterstream, prompted emails amongst coworkers and generally created a huge uproar.

Beyond amazement at the dollar amount involved, the overwhelming response I saw was from unhappy Instagram users. People are even giving out instructions on how to export all your photos “before Facebook ruins everything” and delete your Instagram account.

What am I not getting? Such weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over an app that adds filters and edge effects to your phone photos?

Maybe it’s because I spent so much time in desktop publishing in a previous life, starting on PageMaker even before it was owned by Adobe. I’ve lived through the advent of image edge effects made easy and witnessed the subsequent overuse in the late 90s. I anticipated this app would run a similar course.

I also aligned with Chris Ziegler when he and Dieter Bohn debate on the Verge whether “the retro-hip filters [are] destroying the visual internet or are they simply the zeitgeist of our time?”  Like Chris, I saw Instagram as a false artistry, a crutch, “a misguided replacement for a properly composed shot and a decent sensor.”

And that’s why I stayed away. I’m obviously missing something, though, when there is such devotion to Instagram.

Dieter countered that “When most people share photos, they’re trying to share their experience at that moment. Adding a filter is a way to make what came out of an inaccurate image sensor feel more true to that moment.”

Ok, so I can see where there might be a place and time for an effect to tell a story. And maybe every picture does tell a story, as Rod Stewart sang; but, come on – it’s an app to make photos look fancy, right? Why all the hullabaloo?

“You’re more than an app: you are an extraordinary community, and that’s what I fell in love with,” opined Tim Malbon. And one of his blog commentors added “Instagram was/is about intimacy.”  So, evidently, users were doing more than just broadcasting their fanci-fied photos to Twitter. There were connections being made within Instagram itself.

One of the Instagram co-founders, Kevin Systrom, described it during the TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing conference as “a photo-based social network.” He also added:

“I didn’t start this to be a photo app. It was about communicating visually. Those are two very different things. A photo app is a utility. It’s like comparing Twitter to Microsoft Word. If you want to be an author, you’re not always going to constrain yourself to 140 characters.”

So, in that light, I guess the angst is caused because users are worried their little (if, 30 million users, is little) community will get lost in the larger Facebook community.

Apparently 20 percent of Instagram users already connect their accounts with Facebook, but they weren’t all exactly welcoming to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently when he posted on their site

Photo via Creative Commons by Aleks Grynis

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