"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Some Thoughts on Instagram

Today I finally updated my Instagram app. Goodbye classic logo; hello new, boring one.
Okay, so I know I'm woefully behind on this one. Most people have already updated Instagram (like six months ago) and gotten used to the new features, but switching over today got me thinking about Instagram as a whole, as well as the impact it's had on my life. Here are my thoughts, loosely organized:

Part 0: Meta Ramblings
It feels kind of ridiculous to even be writing about an app. I still have a tendency to see internet culture as something less real, or less "worthy" than culture that has its origins in the "real-world." But of course that's ridiculous because the two are, more than ever, inextricably linked. I also feel hesitant to spend so much time contemplating and interacting with an app which could theoretically go extinct. Think MySpace. Think Vine. Think about your favorite website ten years ago: does it still exist? So much of that time and creativity, obsolete or completely gone. Still, Instagram feels important, and I don't think it's in danger of dying out any time soon. It's been a major source of creativity and inspiration to me since I first got a smart phone my junior year of high school. So I'm going to put aside my initial reservations and give Instagram the thoughtful consideration it deserves. 

Part I: Background
First of all, let me just say, I love Instagram. It's by far my favorite social media platform. I think the reason I fell in love with it is because it's one of the few social sites that feels truly creative. Not only does it satisfy my itch to see the world through other people's eyes, but posting to Instagram feels like an act of creation. You're not just telling people about your day or sharing a funny meme. You're actively noticing the world around you, capturing it in a way that only you can, and sharing it with other people. Instagram feels like an experience in a way that Twitter and Facebook don't. You open the app in the morning and see twelve different sunrises, breakfasts, and cups of coffee. No two photos are the same, and yet we're all experiencing the same morning, the same sunrise. Instagram brings everyday to the level of an art form.

Part II: Criticisms
That's not to say that Instagram is perfect. The plethora of sunrise, breakfast, and coffee photos is both a blessing and a curse. There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to Instagram cliches. Over the years the platform has become less a place where people post photos from their everyday life and more a glossy silkscreen designed to make their life seem more perfect than it is. The act of adding filters to your photos was already an act of enhancement, but look at enough Instagram accounts and you'd think most people were living lives filled with travel, adventure, and gourmet food. Most of the time I see Instagram as a source of creative inspiration, as a way to experience beauty through other people's eyes. But I'd be lying if I said I never fall into the trap of jealousy, based on the false notion that someone's Instagram feed is an accurate representation of their daily life.

Part III: The New Instagram
This leads me to the update. Part of the reason it took me so long to switch over was that I didn't really care about the "story" feature in the first place. For those that don't know, your story is a way to upload photos and videos that are separate from your normal Instagram feed. They disappear after 24 hours, and they play in succession, so if you want you can see moments from someone's entire day at a glance. The feature comes almost directly from Snapchat, complete with a similar option to write captions over the photos and add cute overlays and graphics. 

I wasn't expecting to like Instagram's story feature. I'm still not sure that I do, but it certainly got me thinking. I found myself fascinated by the difference between what people posted on their stories and what showed up in their normal feed. The same thing that bothers me about Instagram, the tendency for it to feel overly perfect and contrived, was suddenly enhanced by the existence of the story feature. Here, the same person who posted a stunning photo of themselves on a beach at sunset to their regular Instagram, could also post a video to their story about running out of gas near that same beach. The Instagram story is anti-filter and anti-perfection. If your Instagram feed were a movie, your story would be the "behind the scenes" featurette. It draws attention to the artistry required to post a beautiful, filtered photo to your feed. 

Part IV: Authenticity and Artifice
This dichotomy has been bothering me all day. With the new update, Instagram has tried to put two opposing forces in the same place. Instagram stories are all about immediacy. You only see photos and videos for a few seconds at a time. You get the sense that they were created quickly, too. It's life in rapid fire. By comparison, regular Instagram forces you to really look at a photo, take it all in. It is a perfectly curated snapshot, something that was composed and edited rather than simply captured. 

What I like about the stories is that they're personal. You're not just seeing this person through their photographs anymore; you're hearing their voice, seeing how they move in the world and interact with others. But if stories are somehow more "authentic" where does that leave your regular feed?
Does seeing "behind the scenes" make your photos more beautiful or more fake?  Does it matter that everything we put online is curated in some way? 

I don't know the answers to these questions. All I know is that seeing a video of someone I'd only ever known through photos was a profoundly strange experience. I immediately revised my original view of that person based on their voice and their mannerisms. It made it harder for me to idealize them, because now I know for sure that they are just a regular person living a regular life. Maybe Instagram stories does the much needed work of breaking the facade. But maybe it also turns the thoughtfulness behind each photo into a display of its curated-ness.

Part V: Conclusions, If I have Any
Basically, Instagram's story feature is weird, but I still like Instagram as a whole. I wrote this post not to bash Instagram or the people who use it, but to think critically about the way we portray our lives online. I'll probably have more thoughts on this in the future, and I'm curious to hear yours. I thought I'd end with a list of my favorite Instagrammers, the people who inspire me daily to see the world through a creative lens. 

@rachelcokerwrites - One of my favorite people on Instagram. Rachel sees a world full of color. She always seems to turn small outings into mini adventures, and she excels at appreciating the little things. Follow for vintage fashion, sisterly love, and thoughtful musings on art.

@hellopoe - This lady has some serious photography skills! She travels constantly for her job as a freelance photographer, but her photos don't feel postcard-perfect in the way that a lot of travel photography does. She has an incredible eye for color and line, and every time I see one of her photos I want to set out on my own adventure.

@ashleymaryart - One of the many artists I follow on Instagram. I love her unique, geometric style, and the best part about her Instagram story is getting an in depth look at her process and watching her work come to life!

@jedediahjenkins - It's hard not to admire someone with such profound curiosity and unbridled joy. I also wish I was half as good a writer as Jedediah. His (long!) captions make me revaluate my reality every. single. time. His most recent posts regarding politics and how to bridge the gaps between people are a balm for the soul. Come for the photos, stay for the words.

@thiswildidea - Okay, I'll be honest, I mostly follow this guy for his dog. (As I think most people do - she's in almost every photo) She is supremely cute and also probably the most well behaved dog on the planet. One resounding pro of Instagram stories: you get to see her in action!

@laurenmarek - Another fantastic photographer who happens to also be based in my hometown. What a cool thing it is to see the city you grew up in through the eyes of another person. She's made me see Houston in a whole new light. 

Phew! I think that's enough for one post. Let me know if you think this hard about social media, too.