Kevin Abosch, a photographer and a creative artist friend of mine happened to be in New York, just like me. In between our heavily packed schedules, we met for a quick coffee and caught up with each other’s lives. And then we ended up talking about photography and what it means and what it should mean.
“You should take the time to critically look at all your photos, and figure out why you like them and why you don’t like them,” he told me. The creator of Lenka app has been making photos for decades. Our conversation ended up being about Instagram and how it has influenced what the world thinks of as popular photography styles.
From overtly filter-heavy styles (to compensate for poor quality of photos) to the VSCO look, Instagram of today is essentially a popularity contest that encourages people to chase “likes” rather than finding their own style. Likes for many of the bigger accounts means ability to make paid content, while others are simply accumulating social capital. Copycat creativity has been turbocharged by Instagram.
It is remarkably different from the early days of Instagram when it encouraged people to become better photographers. I started using Instagram as a beta tester just a few days before it launched. Prior to Instagram, I hadn’t taken any photos unless I was using my Blackberry’s camera for news photos of events. I had never even owned a proper camera. My theory was that the emergence of mobile cameras and faster wireless would result in the creation of a mobile-first photography oriented platform, much like Flickr emerged in the post-broadband era.
It was love at first sight. The emergence of iPhone camera and Instagram set me on a path that would one day become a full blown hobby, where most of my creative efforts would be focused on photography. In a previous piece, I pointed out that the early Instagram-community acted as my teachers and many strangers became friends – Majd, Joshua Ellen Harris, Pei Ketron, Dan Rubin, Helena Price and Elle Luna for example. That was six years ago.
Today is the sixth birthday of Instagram and it has gone from that tiny little app for a few hundred people to a network of 500 million users. Instagram has disrupted the fashion business, it has turned unknown brands into global phenomena and it has made stars out of virtual nobodies. And it has done all this by not being the most original —despite the hoopla around its design chops, the app has xeroxed ideas big and small — from square photo, to filters to editing tools to now stories — but by building a layer of what I call the minimum viable unit of happiness.
From the very beginning they encouraged people to share what were essentially perfect photos that were packed with delight. The like (heart) button became a signal of encouragement. The wizardry of co-founder Mike Krieger made sure photos uploaded fast and appeared on our screens what seemed like instantly. The whole experience was optimized around bringing a smile to your face.
Instagram came at the right time, for thanks to social media, our society was shifting into a narcissistic hyperdrive. Likes, followers, retweets and shares is how people started to quantify their place in this hybrid virtual world. The rise of faux-celebrities such as the Kardashians and the Jenners is part of this societal shift. Instagram, which was once a genteel photography driven community, is now a celebrity reality show, where marketing, hype and glitz rule. It doesn’t surprise me that 100 million people use Instagram stories everyday. I mean who doesn’t want to watch Kanye being Kanye every so often.
“As social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram grow larger, they skew disproportionately toward supernodes—celebrity, meme and business accounts,” observed Arjun Sethi, partner at Social Capital in his recent essay about the end of social networks. “80 million photos are posted a day, but the average engagement rate per post is 1.1%. On Instagram, 50% of posts are generated by less than 3% of accounts.”
Nevertheless, numbers mean Instagram can convince half a million advertisers to spend money with the company every month, though not all of those ads are great. It is even better for its parent, Facebook, which looks astute in picking up the fast growing photo service for about $750 million, a bargain.
Sethi points out that as networks become too big and start to lack intimacy, they start to decay. We instead look for more closer forms of sharing. Instagram is going through that same kind of fraying. I find the service a bit cluttered and lacking a degree of happiness it brought with it. There is just too much visual noise. I find photographers who make lovely photos are actually pretty damn boring. I don’t care much about someone shoving content-marketing down my throat.
For me, my private shareable moments are still shared on Snapchat, which allows me to keep the most important things private.I don’t have an interesting life filled with Instagramable moments and videos, like say Beyoncé or Jay-Z. I don’t find photography that inspires me on Instagram. I have taken to looking at books.
Today, six years later, my love is a little bit dimmer. Now instead of checking Instagram every few hours, I visit occasionally. I share photos, though not as often. It still is on my home screen, but so is Snapchat. I am rooting for Snapchat — it has original ideas and is still keeping things interesting. As for my photos, I have a photo blog: Om.blog. You should come visit and see my attempts to find myself. Kevin put it best: true photography is therapy and a journey into yourself.
October 6, 2016, New York City!