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.