Instagram Problems

Whenever you read an article about Instagram you encounter the same set of clichés. I think they are propagated by people who don’t use Instagram, or barely use it—people who don’t really like or understand social media in general.

I’ll list the clichés. You’ll recognize them:

Instagram is nostalgic. Instagram is a wistful and futile resuscitation of photographic tools from the past. It’s retro. Instagram is banal—it’s just people taking pictures of the same things again and again: food, pets, vacation spots, etc. Instagram is fake.

These clichés are fully displayed in a couple of articles that the New Inquiry has published over the last year: Teju Cole’s “Dappled Things” and Matt Pearce’s “Shoot Hip or Die.”

Let’s start with Cole. He’s writing about Gueorgui Pinkhassov, a Russian photographer who lives in France and has an Instagram account. Cole likes Pinkhassov’s Instagram because it’s a rare account that meets his criteria for art.

Comparing the pictures distributed on a social network to art photography is like comparing everyday speech to novels. Not all pictures are paintings and not all sentences are poems. They may be nicely made nonetheless, but that’s for the pleasure of friends, not for posterity.

Cole says that Instagram is full of “pets, pretty girlfriends, sunsets, lunch.” This is a standard complaint but I have a hard time relating to it. I don’t see any of that stuff on Instagram, or if I do then it’s in small doses. Cole seems to suggest that it’s Instagram’s fault that he sees boring pictures there. I think it’s his own fault, for having boring friends.

Cole’s misguided prioritization of the medium over the social relations that it exists to support permeates his critique of Instagram. He wants to condemn it as bad photography. But Instagram isn’t photography. It’s a social media platform. He’s looking for art where he should be looking for good company.

Cole wants images with staying power. But social media isn’t an archive. I think of Instagram images as phatic images, taking a term from linguistics and anthropology. “Can you hear me?” affirms that the channel of communication is open; this is the example that linguist Roman Jakobson gives of the phatic. Bronislaw Malinowski had introduced it earlier, in his anthropological studies of small talk. Jakobson and Malinowski discussed two aspects of the same purpose—confirming contact—though Jakobson was more concerned with speech establishing the physical possibility of communication (again, “Can you hear me?”), while Malinowski was interested in the social possibility (“How are you?”, “Nice weather we’re having,” etc.).

“Hello?” confirms a working connection at the beginning of conversation over the telephone. The internet started out in phone lines and expanded their potential as vehicles for communication, effectively spawning millions of ways to say “Hello?”—from “A/S/L” in AOL chat rooms to tweets recording the current contents of the tweet’s head, a joke or a musing or whatever. The latter barely count as vehicles of information; mostly, they are there to remind the tweeter’s network of his existence, reaffirming the connection among them. Instagram images are phatic images because they aren’t made to last. They’re made to reaffirm the user’s presence in a network. The phatic image doesn’t need to be archived, unless an archivist determines that there’s a need to do so (even if that archivist is a person making a backup of his Instagram account), in the same way that not everyone’s collection of letters needs to be published as a book. (Snapchat is an ephemeral social media network that epitomizes the logic of phatic images… but I’m talking about Instagram.)

The phatic impermanence of Instagram means it makes little sense to speak of Instagram as “nostalgic.” Cole hates the “fake emotion, unearned nostalgia” of Instagram. But for most people who use Instagram the nostalgia isn’t there.

But while the icon for the app looks like a little square Polaroid camera and some of the filters are named for effects associated with obsolete cameras, most people who actually use Instagram aren’t trying to make new pictures look like old ones, and they don’t care if they accidentally do.

There are always people who do exactly what brand managers want them to do. But they are a minority—a minority overrepresented by people who write about the brands. You don’t have to be an artist or otherwise visually savvy to use Instagram in an off-brand way. Go hashtag surfing and look at all the people who repost “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “bro do you even lift” memes—they’re just using Instagram as they would use any other image-sharing network. And adding filters.

Polaroid only stopped printing film a few years ago. There were people in the 1970s using Polaroids and that wasn’t nostalgic. They just liked the way it looked. People want images that look interesting—better than life—and that usually means an image enriched by noise specific to the means of its production. For the digital photos taken with an iPhone this means the addition of a digital filter, like the ones in Photoshop; and while these are developed in reference to the noise of the Polaroid images those references don’t matter to most users.

Today the Polaroid-inspired filters are largely used not to simulate old instant photos but to compensate for the flaws in the iPhone’s image-making function, for the watery thinness of the pictures it produces. Filters add intensity, contrast, depth, and color. And the ease of this—or rather, the awareness of the potential for manipulation—speaks to a pervasive sophistication about the nature of the digital image. It is fluid, changeable, viewable from a vast variety of perspectives—like people and like words. The awareness of this is very contemporary. There is nothing nostalgic about it.

Like Teju Cole, Matt Pearce is interested in real photography, and this interest is an obstacle to understanding Instagram for what it really is. Pearce and Cole both exalt photography. They love cameras and film and the beautiful, slender objects you can make with them. They are way more nostalgic than anyone who unthinkingly drops a 1977 filter on an iPhone pic.

Given Pearce’s love of photography, it’s strange that he’s so bothered by “fakery.” After all, how can any image be “real”—other than in its reality as an image?

I’m always alarmed when I come across the conceit that a photographic image can show the world as it really looks. Take a look at the world, Matt Pearce! The world doesn’t have four corners. The world isn’t flat. The world has peripheral vision. Its depth is not an optical illusion.

Pearce says he grew up around photography. It was the profession of his dad. It makes sense that he’s nostalgic for it. But it’s strange that he’s oblivious to fakery when he grew up with the lights and backdrops and poses—all the trappings that have always been used to rescue photography from reality. (Cole wrote his piece after Pearce’s, and to his credit, he mentions Pearce and gently criticizes his fetish for veracity: “The filters that Hipstamatic and Instagram provide,” he writes, “are simply modern day alternatives to the dodging and burning that have always been integral to making photographs.”)

Who wants anything to be real? Humans live for fakery. Humans are unlike the other creatures of this world because of language, which makes it possible to represent what is not in the world, and build communities and societies around these representations.

Is it any wonder that a social media application can become successful by producing phatic images that are ostentatiously unreal?

This is an app where pictures are always attached to words. Instead of a darkroom, they pass through the stage where captions and hashtags are added. This is an app where showing things that aren’t in the world becomes a visual equivalent to the phatic utterance. And that’s why people like it.


  1. culturetwo
    Posted May 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Here are links to the articles:

  2. Dr. Fuzz
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Love this!

  3. Posted June 5, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’m not going to lie, I was one of those IG haters who made a bunch of snotty comments about it and now I thoroughly enjoy it. I even apologized to all of my friends for teasing them about it.

  4. Posted June 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve only just recently joined IG. Still unsure about whether or not I like it.

  5. Hannah Burke
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

    couldn’t agree more, excellent posting!

  6. themodernidiot
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink | Reply

    ” I think it’s his own fault, for having boring friends.” haha brilliant!

  7. Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    I haven’t tried Instagram yet. Thanks for sharing this as I will keep this in consideration when choosing this type of social media. I like your blog, thanks for sharing.

  8. Posted June 6, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink | Reply

    Psychological and Philosophical. I like it.

  9. Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink | Reply

    I feel guilty for constantly bashing on it

  10. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink | Reply

    i love instagram and everything about it 🙂 congratulations on being freshly pressed

  11. alexanderschimpf
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this–I’ve been trying to figure out Instagram, and thinking of it as a social media platform was helpful.

    The only points I would like to see clarified are near the piece’s end, the paragraph on “humans live for fakery.” I’m not sure how strongly I should read “fakery.” Do you mean that humans are not truth-oriented? Or does the fakery just transform things in such a way that humans can more easily latch onto some aspect of reality?

    I have similar questions about the end of the next sentence in regard to “represent what is not in the world.” I agree that words can master absence in some mysterious way, but how total is the absence here?

  12. Posted June 6, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I just started Instagram-ing and I post about food, landscapes etc. And I’m loving every bit of it! I don’t understand why people complain about social media. If you don’t like it, stay off it. Simple.

  13. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    THANK YOU! I keep coming across all this Instagram hate and can’t figure out why. I love Instagram. I also love visiting art museums or picture galleries. I don’t undersand why it has to be one and not the other! Thanks for putting this out there!

  14. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I really like Instagram, just quit after the photography rights debacle, and haven’t looked back. But it is definitely a great app, has fantastic potential. He sounds like he was being a photo snob.

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yea I was going to try Instagram but the rights issue scared me off. Looks cool though, and fun!

  15. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Totally agree. I see no pictures of bad selfies, random cats and scrambled eggs. Because i just dont follow people who would post that.

  16. Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this opinion on Instagram. I’m actually abit tired of the Instagram “look”. You have to realize that I was teen when the Polaroid camera was all the rage in the 1970’s. So to me, it’s not nostalgic. It’s just old. Period. Instagram photos don’t emotionally inspire me at all.

    I have to wear glasses now anyway (:)), so just give me innovative, clear photos.

  17. kelvingrove2013
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink | Reply

    “Cole says that Instagram is full of “pets, pretty girlfriends, sunsets, lunch.” This is a standard complaint but I have a hard time relating to it. I don’t see any of that stuff on Instagram, or if I do then it’s in small doses. Cole seems to suggest that it’s Instagram’s fault that he sees boring pictures there. I think it’s his own fault, for having boring friends.”

    I have to say that I found it full of pets, pretty girls,nails and food. And that was just looking at recent posts, nothing to do with friends.
    I didn’t find the pictures in themselves boring it is the repetitiveness of them that wears you down, but only if you see it as a photography app, which is is not.
    It is as you rightly say a social media platform and when viewed as such it is no more, or less boring, than Facebook, Twitter et al.

    Ultimately, as I don’t really do “social networking” I became bored with it and the rights issue was as good an excuse to leave so I did.

    “Humans live for fakery” – perhaps some humans do but there is an ongoing search for truth which drives many people, notably scientists, onwards.

  18. Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Fantastic analysis. I’d add that there is an element of self validation integral to the platform, the search for approval in the form of likes.

  19. Posted June 9, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I was thinking about starting posting on Instagram myslef lately (I have an account but I’ve been using it to follow some friends only). Your analysis was quite helpful :))


  20. aprillaugh
    Posted June 13, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I love this post! I think people have the rights to post whatever they want to post on their page but I tend to follow folks that spam me 🙂

  21. Posted June 19, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Modus Getar and commented:
    Whenever you read an article about Instagram you encounter the same set of clichés. I think they are propagated by people who don’t use Instagram, or barely use it—people who don’t really like or understand social media in general.

    I’ll list the clichés. You’ll recognize them:

  22. Posted November 25, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Really enjoyed this.. If it’s okay by you I would like to reference it in relation to an exhibition I am hosting in Melbourne in Feb…?

One Trackback

  1. By What I Read in 2013 | Writing Through the Fog on December 24, 2013 at 1:29 am

    […] culturetwo: Lots of interesting discussions here on internet culture by Brian Droitcour, like “Selfies and Selfiehood,” 8==>, and “Instagram Problems.” […]

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