Instagram is awash with copycat images, from yellow jackets in front of waterfalls to feet dangling off rooftops. But given that we supposedly value originality so highly, why does mimicry proliferate across social media, and why is it so successful? More importantly, is it killing our capacity for new ideas?
With over 100 million photographs and videos uploaded to Instagram every day, and more than 50 billion shared to date, it's inevitable that there is going to be a lot of repetition. When you also factor in that the vast majority of users are aged between 18 and 29, certain themes are going to emerge. And sure, endless photographs of perfect flat whites and people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa are inevitable, but certain tropes seem less likely: the yellow jacket, the white Land Rover, and of course, the ubiquitous orange and teal filter.
In his book Civilization, Niall Ferguson wrote a damning indictment of contemporary life. It's a paradox, he suggests, "that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenising humanity." Never before in human history have so many people worked so hard to establish themselves as individuals through exactly the same means: consuming near-identical products — and taking the same photographs.
The Monetization of Popularity
Last week, Passion Passport interviewed the curator behind the Instagram profile @insta_repeat, an account (covered recently by Fstoppers) that collates 12 incredibly similar images taken by photographers exploring wild locations. While the account itself seems quite cynical, the curator is surprisingly insightful of what she is creating. Rather than identifying random tropes, she's picking out people who consider themselves to be photographers. These are accounts that, rather than producing something artistic, are instead "selling a lifestyle" that is "monetized by brand sponsorship." To her, the volume of repetition is a product of the "monetization of popularity," something that reduces risk-taking and originality.
You will almost certainly have seen every single one of the photographs featured by @insta_repeat, whether it's in your own Instagram feed, or used to advertise an outdoor clothing brand or travel company. There are endless tips for improving your Instagram game, but it seems that there are a few things you could go and buy right now to start bringing in the followers: a yellow jacket or a canoe. Maybe both.
The Medium Is Definitely the Message
Last month, Fstoppers writer Alex Armitage asked where all the color has gone from Instagram, and only a few weeks ago Rex Jones asked why Instagram loves centered compositions. These trends — whether it's color, framing, or content — are reflective of how Instagram itself dictates the content that we provide it with. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out more than 50 years ago, the medium is the message: essentially, the mode of transmission itself shapes the information that is being transmitted.
In effect, users don't take photographs and then publish them to Instagram. Users create Instagram-friendly images specifically for a platform that is designed to accommodate them. Certain elements offer shortcuts — the white Land Rovers, the outstretched hand selfie — to what Instagram wants to communicate.
Essentially, the cynic would argue that humanity loves the concept of originality without realizing (or perhaps not caring) that originality has long been commoditized. Authenticity is a marketing ploy, skilfully tapping into our notions of independence and adventure while emptying our pockets without us noticing. If you want to be truly authentic, get off Instagram. And while you're at it, burn all of your possessions and go and live in a cave (and no, while it would make for some great content, you're not allowed to photograph this).
A Cesspit of Populist Content
Before you despair, keep in mind that, as photographers (as pretentious as this will sound) we come to Instagram as artists. The reality is that, for the most part, it is a cesspit of populist content that is increasingly trying to sell you something and fosters a culture where mimicry and the mundane are frequently rewarded. A recent Instagram competition offering a cash prize of $6,500 drew more than 180,000 entries. Judges included a former winner of News Photographer of the Year and the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. The winning image? A dog catching a ball. Admittedly, it was a very nice picture of a dog catching a ball, but the only way that this contest could better epitomize the vacuity and banality of social media is if the winning image were a cat. But remember: this is very much social media. Complaining that it's all devoid of value is akin to complaining that the boyband featured in the posters plastered across your teenage daughter's wall is not singing Verdi.
Look Elsewhere For Inspiration
So what are we to learn from this? There's nothing inherently wrong with mimicry; arguably, we are all remixers, to draw on French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, creating "montage (the succession of images) and detourage (the superimposition of images)." Perhaps the best lesson comes from the curator of @insta_repeat: "I think we need to remind viewers to keep themselves in check and grounded in reality. If they want to produce real art, they should look elsewhere for inspiration, and if they want a glimpse of what’s actually out in the world, they shouldn’t look to social media."
And this is crucial: social media makes a lot of noise and it's tempting to assume that it's an accurate reflection of the state of things. It is a reality, but it's only one reality of many and just happens to be the one that gets a lot of attention and consequently feels the most important. The truth is often very different. There are plenty of true dirt-bags living in a van, grinding their own beans and paddling canoes — who don't own a camera and don't use social media, never mind hashtags. Or at least, I hope there are. Either way, let's at least continue to create images that don't conform to stereotypes, even if they don't get us tens of thousands of followers.