I wrote this piece on how Instagram resists some types of content quite a while back, just after 11 September, 2012 in fact. It ties into something I sometimes do which is search Instagram for pictures of wartorn areas or tragic events to see how people are negotiating that tension.
The results tend towards romanticising combatants or their actions – hashtags like #wedoitsoyoudonthaveto and #semperfi – or making use of established imagery. On 9/11 there was a cascade of pictures of the Twin Towers haemorrhaging smoke moments before they collapsed. Some had been pushed through filters and others had text splashed across them from other apps and programs but the curious thing to me was that they were all basically the same. The human tragedy got lost under the bittersweetness, the idea that time is slipping away, the sentimentality which is built into Instagram from the bottom up and are actually incredibly hard to fight.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use Instagram for reporting news or for illustrating it, but how the app couches its media and the idea of a homogenisation of emotion are the things which I find fascinating.
Dean Praetorius, a colleague at the US Huffington Post posed the question “What if Facebook and Twitter had existed on 9/11?” in a blog piece. You can read his take on this imagined reality via the link but one of the questions it raised for me, perhaps because I’d just finished looking through Time magazine’s curated lightbox of the most moving images from 9/11, was whether we would have used image services like Instagram to record any of the events of that day in real time.
I’m aware that this might sound like I’m getting too far into an impossible what-if scenario – after all, Twitter and Instagram simply didn’t exist in the same reality as the Twin Towers. But the broader question of whether we, as users and consumers of social media, would turn to Instagram to record a large-scale tragedy caught my attention because it really made me think about what Instagram actually is.
My knee-jerk reaction was “Of course you wouldn’t use Instagram to report 9/11”.
But why not?
I think it boils down to how Instagram works, both on a practical level and on a conceptual one. To dispense with the practical element: in the midst of a chaotic and frightening situation, pointing, shooting and posting would be about as complex as most of us would be willing to get, if that. Making an aesthetic judgement on whether X-Pro II or Hefe was the filter which best expressed the impending collapse of your surroundings? Not so much. It’s a process which demands time and decisions.
The conceptual level relates to what I think Instagram’s appeal is.
The best way I can explain that is with the phrase “pre-emptive nostalgia”. Instagram pushes an aesthetic rooted in the past, reminding us of pictures from our childhood or perhaps even further back. The filters, the borders and the ever-so-slightly-brokenness which is built into the DNA of the app force your hand in terms of the images you can create easily.
By that I mean that the aesthetic of Instagram is intrinsically tied to nostalgia and a sort of bittersweetness that is more static than it is dynamic. It selects out or resists things which are complicated, immediate and horrific in favour of simplicity, of composure and of the deadening of extreme emotion.
When using Instagram we select units of time from the here and now which we deem worth marking and create an image bathed in visual cues to promote a kind of psychological distance and provoke nostalgia without having to do anything so unseemly as allowing a significant amount of time to pass and a noticeable amount of technological development in the field of image production to occur. It reveals both our own hunger for a “best bits” showreel as well as our appetite for curating the cinematic version of our lives in which we star as the constant protagonist.
All of this means that Instagram repels real-time visual information sharing of the kind needed for reporting on pretty much every level.
The extra steps between recording an image and hitting publish make the service literally less immediate than using the phone’s simpler camera programs and the aesthetic of the app does everything in its power to select out or lessen the emotion contained within the imagery.
Obviously Instagram isn’t billed as a reporting tool, but the level to which it resists the fundamentals of image reporting took me by surprise.