How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ‘Gram

  By Danny Luong

Ask yourself: Would I use anything other than Instagram? It’s a tough pill to swallow for most photographers, the idea of changing away from, or not using a nearly ubiquitous tool for image sharing — the platform boasts as many as 500 million daily active users. A Google search of ‘Instagram alternatives’ brings up camera apps, but they are not new social media platforms for sharing images. That being said, I know I can’t be the only one worried about news regarding the ethics of social media. Turns out, I’m not. John Veldhoen, a regular contributor here at the TCS blog, as well as our curator of books, offers with me a critical look into photography’s favourite, and only viable social media platform.

We talk about cameras all day. Sometimes, we even talk about photography too, and when that does happen, sometimes we swap Instagram handles with people that we meet, and then life continues. And we are guilty of this, after swapping — we scroll through some of our new friends’ photos, look through their feed, like some photos — and then never look at them again. We see photos, we like photos, and then… Then when do we get to live with them? When do we give them enough time to become part of us, etched on more than our retina, but allowing them to become part of us, collected, printed in a wallet, and near; a dashboard; in a book you are reading… Aren’t photos more than perfectly consumable single-use items?

We feel that putting photos on Instagram simultaneously devalues them while also making them more accessible than ever before. But what’s the point of all of that accessibility when the photos have no meaning? The velocity with which we receive photographs now makes them just barely ping in on your consciousness before we leave them, generally never to return. The platform manifests itself in a harmful way to photographers developing their style, at least in my opinion; it skews what we shoot in an obvious way. You start shooting for likes, instead of shooting for yourself. This is an important lesson when doing and creating personal work as a photographer.  Make it for yourself, not for the rush of dopamine you recieve when someone (is it even a person all of the time?) likes your photo. Abandonment of the chronological algorithm has also made me question the use of the medium. Existence under capitalism means that you always have to pay to play, but at least with a chronological feed things felt more natural. You could wake up, check your feed, and see what your friends were up to the day before, or see new photos from their vacations. Now however, the app shows you what it thinks you want to see. A non-chronological feed has also shown that users spend more time looking through their feeds – which leads to more ads being seen, which is the end goal for the platform. It’s no longer about catching up with your friends, or admiring contemporary work from artists you enjoy, but rather letting a machine learn your habits, and your ‘likes’, to serve you more ‘content’, that the feed thinks you will enjoy. In exchange for your enjoyment, someone gets paid. It isn’t you, but that is part of the promise of social media, of course. That the platform can be used for self-expression, or self-promotion. It doesn’t matter which it is to Instagram, the economic outcome is the same.

The algorithmic change away from a chronological time frame caused controversy with a lot of the apps user base, and Instagram has said that it will be implementing a bit of the old chronological feed back into the app, although with no firm date for that implementation. I understand that an app or service and a social media platform needs to make money in the market-driven world of social media, but Instagram seems only concerned with how to make more of it, rather than making the usability of the app grow, and helping users of the platform to thrive. In September of 2018 both the co-founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company. This has raised concerns about the future of the app, with critics saying that with the departure ties to Facebook grow stronger – and this is seen in many by some as a liability. This along with a pay-to-play mentality make Instagram a tougher sell for anyone concerned about privacy, or the potential value of images. Within the pay-to-play ecosystem, there is a sinister and dark side: Bots. Bots that go and like photos, and comment on photos for users to grow their Instagram (due to the perception that it has value). I want to say that there is nothing wrong with using these tools – why would one not use a tool in order to be successful?

Companies with 10,000 followers look much more legitimate than companies with 100. Bots exist. They make Instagram feel more soul-less than it is. Who is liking my photos? Are they liking them because of the hashtags I had set? Does this user put the same comment on every photo the bot likes? Is it a script? It becomes a numbers game that invests in credibility. It’s not all bad, with the advent of social media contact with corporations has gotten easier because of the nature of the platforms, and corporate entities interacting with clients in the same virtual space. Problems are addressed quickly, and companies and corporations strive to put on a PC front to be as inoffensive as possible to every single potential customer. What’s left is a strange disjointed experience that used to be an app about sharing photos with your friends.

Ultimately, the one thing I have to add is that absolutely none of this matters, because at the end of the day, if someone new is picking up a camera – or even using their cell phone as a camera with even an ounce of artistic merit then the entirety of the point is moot. If anything else, Instagram has inspired millions of people every day to pick up a camera and just shoot, so thank you Instagram.

From John Veldhoen:

Danny Luong has been doing journalism concerning the subject of Instagram, and I am coming in with a more subjective take on what the platform provides as a user experience. The corporate buzzword of accessibility traces to an elemental design feature that would be better understood as usability (as opposed to sheer usefulness, or utility, which only pertains to value). It is a quiet night and it is late. I can only hear a distant airplane. Aside from the glow of my phone there is no light in this room. It is mid-January, and I feel like I have been in darkness for months, but the days are getting longer, my dear friends remind me, daily. Not online, but as we watch the sun rising and setting every day, together. When I used Instagram I asked myself all the time, why can’t I tag a photo with a URL to open in another window? What happened to the idea of an expanding, entangled net of accelerated reference? Links out of the platform mean fewer eyes on all the hot sales (and ad bucks)… Instagram, for the purposes of my photography was great for awhile, I loved to fiddle with colours on a bright shiny screen, why not? Making fake selenium is wizardry. I mean, so what if I am wasting my time if I ever want to produce a physical artifact continuous with the material production of things, and in solidarity with homo faber,  as a result of my labour… But whatever, right? Theorists on photography posit that the image does not exist, only the platform. The idea of an image without reference to space or time is absurd, which is why there is so much to say on this topic. For instance, Instagram does not allow you to save your colour presets, or do a more innovative thing, like sharing colour presets with your camera. It would be nice to make the tool more useful, if Instagram is a tool… How to regard a platform… it is a tool? For me to use? Or for now, until it is replaced by the next thing, Dave Paul saw that earlier today in a discussion. Of course media changes over time, one thing feeds into the next thing…

Last year, Instagram had changed to a horizontal scroll, paroxysm followed… This morning one of my colleagues told me that Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook messenger may merge into a singular messaging service, all owned by one company. The only silver lining, I don’t care. Ultimately, there is no alternative platform. And I don’t care. I am for whatever supports the creation of a single image that can override the platform that supported it. I would like to think of an image as an event. An event can exist without regard to the discourse being used about it, even if it can’t be separated from being in time. But I also know that an image without reference to place and time is like writing on a phone, alone in pitch blackness, having no reference to direction, in the middle of the night. I could ask a million usability questions about Instagram as a tool, and all of them are questions about the precedence of form as the overriding concern while selecting the right tool. Why can’t longer video work be shown on the platform? Why is the number of images publishable in a set limited? Why is the tool the messenger of the form, and not the other way around? Could it be because to Instagram time is money? How useful is this tool? Can I sharpen it?

I would like to make a print from my phone’s Instagram, I would like an Adobe RGB file that I am confident will print with fidelity on The Camera Store’s print machine, especially if you print from your memory card, and get the full resolution of the camera you use, as opposed to printing from Instagram’s 2MB compressed files. I can only imagine. People trading killer prints, and off the gram, and with each other… This is all one really wants of any tool.

This is now a few weeks later still. Hard to distil all the conversation about pictures on Instagram. It is probably better that we waited to publish this, since all we do virtually all day is talk about lenses and cameras, but when conversations verge it is not because of a conversation about the platform itself, which seems so small compared to the cultural weight of my feed. The sheer emotional tonnage… let me go look right now, and I will report back… I am writing this in my little blue Tucson, cameras in the car. Earlier tonight I was gifted two copies of the ‘Before Digital’ ACAD catalog by George Webber, missed the opening of another commitment. The cameras in my car are all digital right now. I do have a new 4×5 that I just bought, and scanner, last owner was a research facility in a University park complex, but that is a heavy story, compared to the gram. The gram the gram the gram the gram the gram the gram… Have to get the camera loaded into the blue Tucson, though. But what? Yes, on the gram at the present moment?

“At Eternity’s Gate” by Vincent Van Gogh, care of Tate London.

A picture, lit in a cooler almost tungsten blue looking light, of slight ribs protruding through pallid European skin, by someone with the handle florian.hetz.

A painting from the Rijksmuseum, ‘Two Young Women in the Snow’ by Isaac Israels.

And then more, forever scrolling (a well-known American poet once told me how she thought of the Internet as an endless scroll). All of the world cultural institutions (and higher learning institutions, technology stalwarts) have adopted Instagram and it is nothing less than a total shock to me, the whole of human artistic and cultural innovation scrolling by our rapt attention… Which is what makes Instagram so uncanny, since life bears no relation to what I am watching pass before my eyes in that way, all life is finitude, limits make the edge of definition. Having looked at certain paintings and photographs for long periods of time in reproduction, it is an incredible moment when, after time waiting and saving, one gets to go to the Prado (for instance) and see something so rare, in person, so as to feel like the object, the photograph or sculpture or painting, and the viewer, were meant to share a moment in time. But on Instagram, one moment I am looking at photographs made by friends of their paintings, pictures of old flames and their children… and the next moment I am witness to fraught images from the frontlines and hotzones… Except for the weight of certain images, some unbearably lighter, and some heavier than the gram, it feels like the impression that the platform imparts is endlessness, and weightlessness (which is not the same as lightness).

Danny Luong

Danny Luong

Danny has been interested in photography since his gramps showed him pictures from the Vietnam War. He turned this interest into photographing the softer side of life - engagements, weddings, and families. When he isn't shooting, he's scouring record stores, playing D&D, and Magic: the Gathering. Otherwise, he's a hermit and likes to spend time with his family and dog.