By now you’ve probably seen the news. Or you may have, if you’ve managed to pry yourself away from checking Instagram. The filtered-life network of beautiful plates, places, and faces has just clocked its 1 billionth registered MAU.
There is something oddly satisfying about Instagram, and I think that in many ways it is an antidote to today’s crushing media realities. Between the Trump-feuled headlines portending the coming apocalypse, mass shootings that have become so common they need to hit the triple digits in bodycount before they make the front page, and people calling “crisis” every five seconds, it’s really nice to spend a minute looking at a nice beach, or some eggs served in a bed in a hotel overlooking Hong Kong.
As a technology critic, I have long held contrary positions against what I felt Instagram was doing to society. My most notable example was an article I wrote on Medium called “The Danger of #nofilter.” In it, I railed against the artificial use of filters to make the world more beautiful, and the fact that we had gotten to a point (in 2014) where we needed to qualify when something was actually real. There are other drawbacks too:
“We now take pictures of things that we would’ve never photographed because with a few clicks we can make something that looks, well, pretty decent. As we adapt to the habit of photographing everything, the filter becomes part of the natural action. We photograph so often that we spend more time looking at the photo than the subject we are capturing.”
In the four years since I wrote that, I have changed my attitude towards Instagram and filters in general. But I haven’t been anywhere near correct in my predictions. I wrote on this blog a few years ago that the launch of Instagram stories to challenge Snapchat would degrade the experience on Instagram.
Well, I was really fucking wrong on that one. Instagram Stories now has twice as many daily active users (400M) as Snapchat has total daily active users. I should probably stop making predictions.
But even if Instagram is a welcome distraction from a lot of society’s difficulties today, that doesn’t mean that it’s all good. I was at the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris a month ago with a friend. We caught up and drank a few delicious cocktails. Two girls arrived and sat down at the table across the bar. They ordered their cocktails and when the cocktails arrived, they proceeded to take pictures of each other in at least 20 different positions, ostensibly trying to find the best picture for their Instagrams. Now maybe these girls don’t like cocktails very much, but I had the strange impression that they were there in part because of the picture they would post on Instagram. We left before they found the magic photo, but they had clearly bothered the other clients with their constantly flash photography. I don’t know if they even tasted the cocktails.
Now this is not good or bad, and I’ve learned that there is no justification for judging people. However, when the number of likes that you’re going to get on a post dictates what you do in your life, instead of having amazing experiences that you share naturally, maybe there is something off about that dynamic.
My suspicion was confirmed a few weeks ago when an old friend and former travel photographer came to stay with us for a weekend. He has traveled extensively around the globe and is dedicated to the extreme. He hikes up hills in freezing darkness just to catch the first pink rays of dawn above a remote canyon. His gear is the real deal. He has studied the techniques and has worked as a professional photographer too. He had become disillusioned from travel photography for one specific reason: Instagram.
He said that there are so many people going to amazingly beautiful places just to take the photo that they saw on Instagram. In many ways this damages the fragile environments that make these places so beautiful. There are places in Japan now where those photos are impossible due to the crush of people coming to take pictures.
Now of course I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to beautiful places and take pictures there. I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t travel, or that Instagram is the only reason that people travel. Low cost airlines, more travel infrastructure, more leisure time and the desire to have experiences instead of owning objects are all positive trends.
Instagram is a great source of inspiration, and when that inspiration drives people to expand their horizons, I can’t help but think that’s positive. But when the experience is had for the sake of Instagram, that honestly makes me a little sad.
Oh well, I’ll write again when Instagram has 2 billion MAUs, and I’m sure I will be wrong again about everything I’ve said.