Theses on Ziegler
This is just a long comment to the Ziegler and Bohn pig-counterping article about Instagram. I have been meaning to write about Instagram for a while, and their article was a nice trigger for me to finally do it.
This was a great conversation. It has been fascinating to see all the multiple reactions about multiple aspects of Instagram ever since it came about until today.
Chris, I like you a lot, even if I have said terrible things about you and all of your coworkers while fulfilling my verge-troll duties. But to me the red-scare jokes you have been pulling were funny only up until the fifth more or less. The idea that Marx represents the opposite of democracy is not right. And it's a pity you may feel like that about old Karl, this fine 19th century lad, because I actually think it might be great to try to fit all of this dialogue here inside Marxist historical materialism.
It sounds terrible that some Internet jerk wants to come here in public and pretend he knows something about philosophy, and talking about a silly gadget app of all things, but since Dieter already said everyone posting their pics to Instagram are artists, I guess it's not a far stretch for me to call myself an academy-level sociologist.
The question in the middle of this argument is what do people use Instagram for, or maybe what they should be using it for. It's pretty obvious what you use a camera for, it is a tool to take pictures. It is a means of production that you, a picture-producing laborer, uses to produce pictures. This picture is consumed by others. You can consume your own pictures too, yes, but the main reason people use Instagram and other similar services (and I mean the one I use, Molome, which is pretty much an Instagram clone) is to share their pictures with others. And others include friends, relatives and even random people on the Internet. One interesting detail is that everyone in Instagram produces as much as they are able to, and consume as much as they need, so it is a little bit of an utopian communal society.
Up until now it looks very simple, the problem is when we think about why they _share_, why are people consuming these pictures produced by other people? And it is not a simple question, there may be too many reasons. And I believe in the end it will be pretty close to the same question regarding Twitter. Why do people tweet? It's not a simple. Different people tweet for a variety of reasons. And a single person alone may tweet different kinds of things for different reasons.
In the case of Instagram it may be simpler, though, since the service is pretty much focused on "nice pictures". Twitter and Facebook may have people writing news, may have people talking about a party, about their jobs, complaining of their cell phone carries, lots of things. Instagram is a bit more focused on photography "by itself". Pictures that look good or funny or cute, or whatever. It's more directed to that "atemporal" qualities of pictures that we like and love.
Instagram lets people "like" your pictures. You can like stuff on Facebook too, and you can "favorite" tweets, yes... but on Molome they don't even say "like", they say "love". Random people from Indonesia, Hong Kong, Austria and Spain (and even one American!) have been "loving" my pictures on Molome, and I love it! It's pretty cool. And it's amazing if you think that by choosing this verb Molome is not only producing pictures, but also producing love. It's a love-producing machine, and love may be one of the scarcest commodities in the world right now. (Instagram and Facebook are only producing "likeness", I don't like it that much.)
Yes, I like using Molome a lot, both to share my pictures and to love other people's pictures. It's even nicer than using Foursqaure. I am a Foursquare user like yourself, Chris, and I could not yet understand why so many people have suddenly started to consider it to have become pointless. I check in, I get badges, yes, but that's mostly cheap fun. I do produce and consume relevant information with it. And I don't mind paying the price of giving a lot of information for them, as long as it is still fun and useful to me.
Instagram also has something that is a little more on the futile side, like Foursquare badges. It's the filters. For some reason people seem to think the filters are central to Instagram and friends... They talk like Instagram wasn't much more than an app to apply filters to your pics, and they say that it is pointless because there are other nice filtering apps out there. I can see why it may look like filters are a big thing there, but it's really more of a gimmick. Just one detail, one little feature from that picture-manufacturing tool being used by all these laborers, and that may or may not be adding value to the other people when they consume the pictures. Chris certainly doesn't see much value in these pictures, but might appreciate others. He just have to adjust himself into the right place of the production relations in the Instagramist society.
I would like here to note something about Instagram that is quite peculiar, but not very frequently mentioned. The filters are one way Instagram lets your pictures more peculiar. By the way, we may think of that as a bit of a branding tactic, something to do to your pictures so they don't look like "just another picture", avoiding commoditization. And this not only helps you making your pictures more unique, it helps Instagram itself into making Instagram-produced pictures different from "commodity" pictures. Whether they still archive that, or if filtered pictures have become a new commodity is another story. Anyway, the other thing they do other than using those filters is to use that square aspect ratio for the pictures. It's a very interesting choice, that drastically affects how your pictures look, even if you don't apply any filters at all.
I would like to invite Chris to think about that. His main gripe with Instagram seems to be the filters, but he doesn't even seem to notice this second important aspect. Instagram is actually pretty restrict. It reminds me a lot about Twitter, with the 140 characters limit that was so controversial in the beginning, and still is, but today we see how this sits at the core of what makes twitter what it is, and it's pretty much its most important feature, even if people can't really understand why. Instagram is a little like Twitter while Flickr, for example, is more of a Facebook or Blogger or whatever.
I have found the square aspect ratio to be something very interesting, it really changes a lot how you think about the picture composition. And at the same time it give a great appeal to the application interface. It also has a bit of a "Mao suit" effect making all users look a bit more like each other, if we are to keep on with the communism analogies. (Interestingly, _here_ we have a force of commoditization of Instagram pictures.)
Anyway, Chris seems to be quite worried about pictures as recordings of history, and as needing to have high fidelity, and believes filters are cheap ways to make your pictures look better, replacing the application of proper photography techniques, finding nice framings, etc... I am pretty sure lots of people's pictures suck, yeah, but I am not so much worried that there too much crap out there or anything... I mean, look at twitter. Soooo much crap there. You open up twitter, and if you don't have a very selective timeline, you will see a lot of crap. Someone may post a brilliant haiku there from time to time, I dunno, but mostly it's silly stuff. But we don't care! It's the same for Instagram or Molo, I don't really care if there is a lot of crap there. I follow people that tend to post pictures I like more, just like in twitter I tend to follow people who post haikus more frequently (no I don't, but I do post haikus myself from time to time! They probably turn people away from following me, but who cares? I am not going to "filter" my haikus to make them more appealing to the crowd!)
And regarding the difference to Flickr or Facebook or Twitter again, it's just hard to explain. Almost every time I send something to Molome I do share it also to facebook and twitter. Some of my friends will then "like" my picture on facebook... Some times I don't think it's appropriate for Molome, and I share it directly to Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes just Twitter. And I do send some stuff to Flickr sometimes too. They are all different. I would need a couple more texts like this to try to explain, and I don't really think people would be much interested. But it's just not about having one good tool to share my pictures, there is a lot more going on. I would love to read in-depth articles on The Verge about that.
And one last thought on the filters. I have come to appreciate that filters make the pictures a little more abstract, and this can very frequently have a nice effect of making the picture better to see there in the timeline. It's not about increasing the quality of that picture to make it look prettier, or to make you more interested in framing it and putting in a wall, or wining you the Pulitzer prize, or anything like that. It just makes the picture more "natural", easier to "consume" there. Natural for the activity of looking the picture in the computer or smartphone, not natural in the sense that they look natural. There is nothing natural about a computer screen, it's just better when you are looking at a computer screen and stuff there stuff looks like they came out of Tron instead of an Amish community. I mean, a screen EMITS LIGHT, few natural things are like this...
So, I follow this guy --- the great Randal Schwartz, host of FLOSS weekly among other things --- who from time to time posts what he is having for dinner, when he goes to a new restaurant. By the way, by itself this is a controversial topic, some people hate other people who post what they are eating, they think this is snobbish, that people are rubbing in your face that they are eating something better than you do, or they say that this people should be just eating and enjoying the moment, and that technology is getting in our way preventing us from just having a normal, disconnected life. I think this is all rubbish, I am actually interested in seeing what Randal is having for diner. It's usually interesting, goes to some interesting places and order interesting food, and I don't find it snobbish or anything.
Well, when Randal posts these pictures, he applies a filter to them. He used to just send the pictures, but one day he started to use this filter that is a quite intense filter, it really makes the picture look very abstract. At first I though it was insane, but then I started to understand it was great. First of all, this gives him a bit of privacy. We are not seeing in all perfect details the table he is sitting on, and the people around him, etc. It probably makes it more comfortable to him, he is sending just enough "picture" to accomplish the mission of illustrating the diner he is having and that he tweeted about, but without all the worries related to privacy invasion etc.
Also, like I said, it "Tronificates" the picture. It's pretty to look at a computer screen, with all the chrome from the web browser interfaces, and the website interfaces, and the amazing fonts and blocks of color, and then see that big roasted chicken sitting on top of a plate decorated with lettuce leaves around. You look at a roasted chicken on a table, it's OK. But if you suddenly look at a roasted chicken on you screen, it can actually be a little weird. It's one of those things that you never think about it, but if you give it a thought, you may agree with me. "WTF is this roasted chicken doing in the middle of my Google plus timeline??"
More than that, food is a little gross. If you look at the picture of a roasted picture in the wrong time, and the picture is not taken in the right way, it can look gross. And also, it's nit very easy to take a nice picture of a plate of food, very frequently the picture does not make justice to what you are seeing there. The filter make the picture more abstract, and remove all of these problems.
I have another good similar example. I also follow this other great celebrity, Sasha Grey. I know you know who she is, don't pretend. Well, one day she posted a picture of her feet. She was having her feet manicured, and was waiting for the mail polish to dry or something, and she posted a picture of her recently manicured toes. By the way, I think she used a Blackberry, I am not sure this is still her daily driver. And well, she applied some filter to the picture, not as strong to Randal's, but it was similar. It makes the picture more abstract. It makes it look well when you are seeing the picture in your timeline. It's not like suddenly you are transported into the manicure, and you have Sasha's feet on your nose. It's a bit more distant, it's more cool and casual. A real and perfect, "natural" picture has a bit of a strong commitment to it. A filtered picture is more "hey take a look here, this is what I am talking about."
And the story is interesting because one might think very naively that Sasha would not give a damn about her privacy, and that everyone would prefer to see high-resolution pictures of that and of any other part of her body. After all, they _have_! But no, that was not the moment, that is one situation a filtered pic is better.
And the same goes for other moments, like Dieter said, is not really about photographing something, it's not all about forensic evidence for some trial. I do think it would be great if every picture taken out there would have its original stored. I don't like to think there is information that is going to be missed and lost, like Chris seems to feel. I prefer that the originals are always kept, and you just apply the filters later (like it happens on the Nokia N9, you make all kinds of edits, but the original is always there). When someone sends a picture, the filter can help a lot in transmitting the right mood, and in making the picture look more approachable, and less pedantic, for example, you are not like "hey I'm so awesome, look at this food I am eating or look at this scooter I am riding", you make the picture look more detached from reality, more generic, more about the general subject than that hard-core explicit action going on there.
Anyway, last topic, what is really interesting _right now_ is the subject of Instagram availability in Android. This is amazing because it's something that we can see as a big revolution in the Marxist point of view. We had all those producers and consumers, but the means of production were actually in the hand of this elite, the iphone owners who had the exclusive access not only to produce, but also a bit to consume, because I don't think too many people really used Instagram the way it should be used without having an Iphone, we can see the pics from twitter, etc, but it's different. Well, people using other platforms were being alienated from this society, politically and economically oppressed. But now we have a lot of new people having access to these means of production, and being able to consume and produce freely inside the "Instargam market". How cool is that? I am sure Marx would be a little intrigued. And he would be pissed off by the stupid reaction of Instagram users trying to keep their monopoly. Well, they should know a ghost is haunting the iOS platform...
I close with a last thought. I think, Chris, you are maybe holding a little to the ancient culture of people who grew up, like I did too, in the era of film cameras. We just think film is too precious, and photographs are too precious and sacred, a scarce resource to be carefully handled. So we hate to see a photograph wasted with a dull subject or a bad composition or a silly irreversible effect applied. But we live in different times, my friend! Digital photographs are now cheap, like tweets. I know it used to be more valuable, so people had to dedicate more to the art, etc, but not anymore. You can join us now, take all the lame picture you like without worries. You have nothing to lose but your silver halide shackles!
(BTW, neither Instagram or Molome are available for Windows Phone yet, which we know is your next, but I would bet Molo will be available there before Instagram is...)(OBS: In case you are wondering, yes, the title is a more-or-less obscure Marx reference, as are many other strange sentences in this text.)
(Three thousand words, w h e e e!)