Since October last year, Instagram has ruled my photograph taking. It’s done what Flickr should have done and what twitpic, yfrog and the like thought they were doing — a simple, single-purpose photo sharing mobile app.
It gets a lot of flak from people moaning about the use of filters, but that misses the point of what it really is. Like criticising twitter for people’s spellings. As a social space, it’s probably my favourite at the moment. It reminds me of the early days of twitter – the days when you followed a fairly small, but diverse, group of people. When you shared ideas – occasionally what was for lunch – and didn’t have to worry about blocking all the SEO spammers or niche retail outlets from Kentucky, or people shouting for attention.
Instagram is a more curated space. It’s a space dominated by real people and what they see. You may follow annoying, dull people on twitter who will occasionally post something interesting or relevant, but there is no value in following them on Instagram. Similarly, Made By Many’s Hollergram bugged me a bit, because it made Instagram spammy and a marketing platform, rather than a photo-sharing space. It’s the same with brands; it’s relatively hard for them to find a way in to people’s feeds, and that helps keep it clean. Of course, there are exceptions and the success of feeds like Playboy, NPR and Threadless show that it is possible to be a brand in this space, without being spammy and crass. Offering quality content is still the best way to market.
Unlike other social networks where there is some level of peer pressure to be friends with X, or follow Y, Instagram is liberating in that I only follow people who have an eye for an interesting image. It is about following people because you want to see what they see, how they see it.* Whilst I was writing this post, Ben Terrett posted this and asked for comments. You could probably stop reading now.
It’s that, I think, that I meant to write about. One of the best things – again this goes back to ‘early twitter’ – is the small memes. None of the awful #replacelovewithbanal word games, but ‘memes without a tag’. Behaviour that goes unannounced, but catches on, influences others, develops beyond the original insight or in-joke. The best bits of Herd mentality. It’s enjoyable watching the images that people collect, or make an effort to photograph: Marcus greets a statue of Otto von Bismarck every morning on his way to Booming, Emily hunts for lost gloves, Toby led a brief glitched photo meme, AceJet records the planes above, and everyone – everyone – shares Brutalist buildings, excellent coffees, typography and their feet.
My personal ambient collection is of Other People’s Shopping Lists. I’ve been aware of doing this since January or so, and I’ve collected twenty-eight since (with some help). It’s a casual thing, to keep an eye out for things people have left behind after shopping. I’m interested in them for several reasons: straight-up nosiness, as data trails, documents of human behaviour & intentions, and the stories you can tell from them – or at least imagine.
Each shopping list is different; from its items, to the handwriting (one typed), the choice of material (Post It notes, back of birthday cards) and the way items are listed (aisle-by-aisle, recipes, days etc). They’re a fascinating snapshot of a person you don’t know, but probably feel you could. Every time I find one, I speculate on the person writing it. How old are they, what is their background, what are they doing? What kind of person uses a birthday card for a shopping list? Is the person that writes ‘pork’ different to the person that writes ‘meat’?
They give me a way to indulge natural tendencies: creating back-stories for things, applying the meaning layer to nothingnesses.
That’s what Instagram is for.
* Again, this is why filters are acceptable. The complaints that they obscure the subject of the photograph or add in a patina that doesn’t exist are valid, but facile. Every decision made about the image is made by the person taking it. If their choice is to present it in a washed-out greyscale, or a high-contrast lomo filter, then that is part of the composition. It is them presenting their version of an image; isn’t that what photography is about?