Before continuing with the literature study, a brief introduction to and history of Instagram seems imperative. Instagram is an online photo sharing and social networking service. It goes beyond being just a digital platform, and functions as a virtual gallery, online meeting space and pictorial narrative compressed and accessible from a single, hand-held device. Since its launch at the end of 2010, it has been a huge success, with close to hundred million monthly users. Over forty million photos are uploaded every day (http://instagram.com/press/).
Smartphone images are given saturated colours, Polaroid-style borders and dark vignettes. The click of a button adds light leaks and lens flares, defects that marred the “Kodak moments” of previous generations. We can clearly see that Instagram capitalises on the aesthetics of the pre-digital era, in an inherently digital way.
The idea was to make mobile photography fast, beautiful and fun. We learned from experience that taking photos on the phone did not lead to the results that we wanted, so we created the filters and tools to achieve a more artistic experience.
Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram (Has Instagram made everyone's photos look the same?, 11/04/2012)
Although there is not yet any theoretical literature specifically on Instagram to refer to, this phenomenon can be contextualised through the theory of digital culture and photography. Viewed as a synthesis of these, Instagram can be understood as a hybrid of visual, commercial, and technological culture.
Digital and visual cultural concepts will be reviewed in order to frame Instagram. Firstly, we will look at significant aspects of digital culture and web 2.0, integral to Instagram. Authors such as Glen Creeber, Charlie Gere, George Landow and more will be referred to for this purpose. Secondly, the work of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag will be analysed for perspectives on the development of photography.
The term “digital culture” is synonymous with the term “new media”. Mobile phones (which are an integral part of the Instagram experience) are a part of it.
There are some defining characteristics which separate digital from analogue media:
Easily transferable across distinctly different media platforms
Easily manipulated and networked
Can be stored and remotely accessed or distributed
“It is also easier to manipulate digital data without any loss of quality.” (Creeber & Royston, 2009, p. 2) Instagram is an online photo-sharing and social networking service that enables users to create and shares pictures via other social platforms. We will look at three integral components of Instagram: Web 2.0, digital photography and mobile digital platforms.
Web 2.0 and User-Generated Content
Web 2.0 is a second generation of web based communities and hosted services to evolve after the crash of the “dot.com” era, or web 1.0. The difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 is that 2.0 websites allow users to do more than just retrieve information; they include a social element were users can generate and distribute content, often with freedom to share or withhold it. Examples are network websites and “wikis”, which allow users to create, edit and link web pages easily and “folksonomies”, which allow users to collaboratively create and manage tags to annotate and categorise content. In other words, we come together, each give a little, which add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Given the characteristics above, we can easily place Instagram within Web 2.0. The platform consists of billions of user-generated images. They are grouped according to given hashtags or categories, which will add certain them to collections of similar ones (as a means of organising content). At the end of 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the United States of America, the story was largely told through Instagram photos, and it was reportedly the most photographed event ever. Yet this was not only the contribution of the common people. Five photographers from Time Magazine were given an access to the magazine’s Instagram feed in order to provide breaking news coverage. (Bercovici, 01/11/2011)
In cases such as that of Hurricane Sandy, we see the melting of boundaries between reader and writer, as well as amateur and professional photography. George Landow calls this “hypertext”. At this time the world is witnessing the creation of a “participatory culture” allowing audience to become increasingly involved in the creation and distribution of meaning; moving from the communications model of “one-to-many” to “many-to-many” which changed traditional top-down models of communication. (Landow, 1997) This allows the audience to become a “producer” as well as a “receiver” of media and we witness the creation of user-generated content.
Hypertext reconfigures – rewrites – the author in several obvious ways. First, the function of reader and writer become more deeply entwined with each other. Hypertext creates an active and even intrusive reader. Second, we witness a notion of collaborative writing. (Landow, 1997, 2006)
Referred to by John Hartley as “DIY citizenship”, this term reflects the idea that the media allows us to create our own complex, diverse and many faceted notions of a personal identity (Hartley, 1999). “You are what you share” in other words (Leadbeater, 2008, p.1). Digital images give us flexibility. Eyes need not be brown if one prefers them to be blue. It is difficult to draw the line where truth begins and ends in the age of the digital image, as photography’s claim to truthfulness becomes ever more tenuous.
Since the 1980’s, the field of photography has moved from the analogue towards digital culture, with information being transformed into signs (digits, pixels) and mass production. This period represents a major shift, in terms of photographic technology and practice (for one thing, there are many more images taken). According to Jean Baudrillard it is the primary fact about contemporary world:
Text based computing provides us with electronic rather than physical texts, and this shift - from ink to electronic code - produces an information technology that combines fixity and flexibility, order and accessibility - but at what cost? (Lister, 1995, p. 4)
Pixels make it possible to transmit photographs via the Internet and to edit them. Edited manipulations have been seen as the falsification of truth. As images are so easy to edit, there has been discussion raised that “the method would be used to spin seamless visual lies. Digital photography and its adjunctive systems and devices seem to be shifting public perception of the photograph from fixed memory to an impermanent and changeable image” (Warner, 2012, p. 205). This, it is argued, has profoundly transformed our ideas of reality, knowledge and truth. Entering the era of digital photography, the photograph is manipulable and therefore does represent reality. The certainties of the photographic era have been deconstructed. Kevin Robins calls this the death of photography, as “the representation of appearances is ceasing to be the incontrovertible basis of evidence or truth about phenomena in the world” (Robin, 1995, p. 36). William Mitchell agrees that because of image manipulation digital images “no longer have power to convince us” (Mitchell, 1994, p. 24). Accurate “representation” was for a century at the core of photography and now we have entered the era when it can no longer be the main reference point. This is unsettling and requests a revision of the way we look at things. The possibility to edit a picture gives it a different dimension, an extra layer of atmosphere but is it necessarily contradicting the notion of photography? Since its origins, photography had two layers: the rational and that which goes beyond it. In a way this has been proclaimed by the inventors of Instagram and accepted by its users. What else but a “beyond rational” justification can possibly be found in the blurry études of domesticity?
Many critics argue that even the political landscape is now a triumph of style over substance. It is argued that, usually through the advent of new technologies, the relation between vision and subjectivity can change dramatically. There are many possibilities for creative disruption. Yet new ways may not necessarily be at odds with existing forms, according to Kevin Robin (Robin, 1995). Ways of thinking about image culture are grounded in the experience of images. Imaginative and political freedom, or creative and democratic emancipation - this is how we should really be thinking about our use of images.
Lev Manovich wrote in 1995 that the logic of the digital photograph is one of historical continuity and discontinuity (Murray, 2008). The digital image tears apart the old net of semiotic codes, modes of display, and patterns of spectatorship in modern visual culture, yet simultaneously weaves this net even stronger. “The digital image annihilates photography while solidifying, glorifying and immortalising the photographic. In short, this logic is similar to that of photography after photography” (Murray, 2008, 153). Times have changed. Digital images tease you with photography’s past claims but we have now entered another level where these claims must be revised. In some accounts, the loss of the real is experienced as a crisis in the consciousness of an individual, whilst Baudrillard asserts that simulation is experienced as our collective “reality”, not because we are necessarily deluded, but because social interaction has been reduced to an exchange of signs that are not rooted in material existence (Henning, 1995, p. 219).
A world where modes of presentation are more important than what is actually being presented leads to an obsession with “image” over content or depth. “Little is taken seriously… aesthetics has turned everything into entertainment.” (Creeber & Royston, 2009, p. 20) This aspect of entertainment (or leisure) has been highlighted by Don Slater, who has described photographic images as “a synergy of domesticity, consumerism and leisure” (Slater, 1995, p. 133).
The Camera and Mobile Digital Platforms
Access to the Internet has become more mobile, unchained from the desktop, and we can now experience and encounter cyberspace everywhere. Mobility, multi-functionality, “always on” Internet connectivity and physical size allows the phone to insert itself into moments of daily routine that would be too awkward for a larger device.
Mobile digital devices mediate not only a “social interface” between users, but also between users and the “hybrid” spaces they move through. “Hybrid spaces are mobile spaces, created by the constant movement of users who carry portable devices continuously connected to the Internet and to other users.” (Creeber & Royston, 2009, p. 36) The speed with which camera-phone images can be sent has transformed the photograph into an instant message. The mobile phone is a new tool to capture the surrounding world.