I remember my first post to Instagram. As an Android user, I had to wait until April 3, 2012 before I could get the app, but when I did, I excitedly uploaded my first photo, the Nashville skyline with the seemingly appropriate Nashville filter. I was hooked.
Over the next several years, the platform pushed me to develop my skills with smartphone photography, a challenge when you’re used to full-frame DSLRs and lenses with red rings around the front. The “Insta” part of the name gently pushed users to post photos as they took them, as the events unfolded live. Live video wasn’t really a thing, not just because of bandwidth, but because with the assumption of photos being posted as they are taken, the “live” feeling was baked in.
There was a simplicity to the whole endeavor. All photos had to be square and photos were all you could post. Your timeline showed your friends’ photos in chronological order, no algorithms necessary.
Six days later, Facebook bought Instagram. Slowly, things changed. More photographers posted previously taken images, or ones that had been carefully processed on a computer and taken with a bigger camera. Debates went on about whether this practice was diluting the purity of Instagram’s focus or should be labeled in hashtags. Influencers crowded the airwaves, jockeying for eyeballs, buying followers, and generally making Instagram a poorer platform for it.
Then the service added video, and vertical photos, and galleries and IGTV, and livestreaming and, well, you get the idea. The purity of a service just to feature great photography was lost (and along the way we got saddled with vertical video).
Instagram Is Facebook’s Backup Plan for Younger Audiences
I work with high school students for photography workshops, and a cheesy line I always use when doing portraits is “Here’s your next Facebook profile photo!” That’s when they inform me that none of them are on Facebook, since it’s where their Grandma hangs out, but that they’ll be happy for the new Instagram photo.
I also learned that many young people maintain two instagram accounts, a "real" one that's usually private, and a "Finsta" or Fake Instagram, which is usually public. I'm not sure if Facebook intended for people to use it that way, but it's what young people are doing.
In the absence of young people using its main Facebook site, It seems that the company is larding up Instagram with junk just to keep its younger audience hooked into its social platforms. Keep posting to boost your views with the algorithm, post live content to build a following, all in the name of increasingly shallow engagement. While that’s wise thinking from a business perspective on their part, the ridiculous influencer culture, broken algorithm, and confusing feature set have all destroyed a clean, wonderful service that was once actually about photography. Instead of pushing photographers to use their phones to the fullest and post in the moment, every user is trying to one-up one another with heavily edited photos taken with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras definitely not in the moment. At the same time, while some new services such as Dayflash have come along, none have the critical mass that Instagram does. Purists are kind of stuck.
So Where Does That Leave the Purists?
Years ago, when teaching social media lessons to adults and young students alike, I often praised Instagram as Facebook, but with everything stripped out but the photos. These days, that description doesn't really hold true, as all of these extra features have turned Instagram into Facebook's not-so-little brother.
So there's two ways to look at the changes: Embrace them, maybe ride the influencer wave to short-term fame and maybe some money from a company that's easily duped by a large following, or use it in your own way. I do the latter, viewing Instagram as more of my own visual diary of what I've done and how my kids are growing. It's easy for friends and family to share our lives, and it's quick to pull up in conversation when referencing a photo or moment. It's the way people viewed Blogger and Livejournal when those services first appeared on the scene.
I arrived at this determination after trying to get verified by Instagram as an Fstoppers writer; I was either not popular enough or didn't have enough of a following to matter, even though PicGuide is me and I'm clearly PicGuide. About then is when I learned to stop chasing the likes and followers and learned to embrace the 'Gram for what it is: A temporary space to store my photos for my own and my friends' enjoyment that will eventually go away like all the Xangas and Flickrs before it. (I'll save the discussion for Flickr's life-or-death status for another day). All of these services will be gone one day or another, and there's no point in worrying about accumulating all the eyeballs when they'll migrate somewhere else in a few years. Keeping it in perspective this way will prevent Instagram from becoming a joyless experience.
What do you think of Instagram’s metamorphosis over the years? Has it been good or bad for photography?