Elegy for an Instagram

Jan 21st, 2019 in Photography

A few weeks back, I deleted my Instagram. That day an update to its interface was made that changed how one views posts by introducing a horizontal tap system. Maybe you saw this design, but probably not; it was short-lived, for a good reason. That short experience with it was enough to push me over an edge. A desire for change that had been bubbling within boiled over and saw me smash the big, red DELETE button. I sent an account with five years of earnest participation up in flames.

As Instagram was a big part of my life up until that moment, I feel I need to write a farewell to it and explain my actions. There was more than a haphazard layout that drove me to quit. My experience with Instagram has been a steady decline in usability and focus, even as its continually grown over the past few years and planted itself firmly in the center of the current zeitgeist. By removing myself from it, I am now apart from my peers. One of this essay’s points will be to explore this for myself, as I know it’s a decision with serious consequences.

I’ll start with crediting Instagram as the real genesis of my photography. I picked up the app shortly before I started my music blog, Neat Beet, in late 2013. I got really into composing shots I thought were aesthetically cool in the app, at first with my phone and the simple filter suite it popularized. With a nascent publication at hand, I had a place to publish relevant photography from all my attended concerts and an audience to interact and grow with.

Having that platform made me excited to begin using a camera, and when I inherited a DSLR, I got to work dutifully updating my profile as I learned the ins and outs behind the lens. Social Media, especially Instagram, allowed me to share that journey of learning. Especially as I started dabbling with abstract art. I found strangers all around the app that I felt were on similar paths as me. One, a Coloradan with nomadic leanings, I even dated long-distance for a short while.

In the last few years of using the service, things seem to have lost their mojo. The only people who follow me, sans those I’ve personally met, are spammers or, worse, legitimate accounts that use bots to try and hustle me into following them. “Great post” they’ll say. But, it’s just a scripted message that is blasted out to every image along some category. Instagram has done a poor job policing this, and it makes me very cognizant of the consequences in the psychological rat race imposed on everyone with managing follower counts in general. I don’t think it’s healthy to be battling it out on social media trying to gain a ‘following’ in pursuit of some nebulous form of success from it. If I gain enough, will people pay me to be an influencer or photograph their events? Maybe, but for most people, it’s a pyramid scheme but for their spirit instead of their cash. I wish I could say I was above it, but from day one I felt the drive to increase my score on the app, even though it would never wind up mattering for me.

Instagram puts forward its best impression of Snapchat in late 2016 in adding its Stories feature. This was certainly at the behest of Facebook, its parent company. At first, I found this to be a good addition, as it let me consolidate my Snapchat activities into Instagram and reach a wider amount of people with some zany one-offs. Fast forward two years, and Stories has consumed the users of Instagram. The focus on quality photography has been heavily diluted; it’s way too easy to just zonk out and autoplay Stories when you open the app. Sometimes you’d never even get to posts going down that rabbit hole. I noticed something was wrong here when people would be creating a Story to notify that they had a new image posted. The app is fundamentally different today compared to when I started and recklessly copying a competitor is one of the factors at play.

Insta’s priority in the limelight has been more about tooling the app to be the best possible platform for serving advertisements. This is why they controversially killed the reverse-chronological scroll a few years back, so one could never be quite sure when they’ve seen all the most-recent content and thus be further advertised to. All the while, hyper-targeted advertising has become an insidious reality all over the internet, and Instagram has evolved into the most effective platform for it. Being barraged with ads just leaves me feeling uncomfortable, especially when they creep too far into real life and acquire an Orwellian stain. I know I’m being tracked everywhere I go online, but I’d at least not like that shoved in my face with ads about my specific interests dressed up in a fancy photo every third post. In any service I use; a tiered system that allows users to pay to avoid being advertised to would be categorically appreciated.

Finally, in this political era I’ve been uncomfortable with companies like Facebook, their power and subsequent lack of accountability. Our social media platforms were targeted by an enemy power and successfully used to divide us. In the years following, I don’t think these corporations have done enough to shore us up from further manipulation, and so the only redress is to either reduce my stake or give in to apathy. I’m on a similar paradigm of reduction with the services of Google and Amazon. If I can still have a life while minimizing my use of these tech titans, then this is a personal protest I can make and lead to a victory.

There are my justifications for a self-imposed exile from the most popular place on the internet. There’s now a gaping hole in my digital existence. To me, the most obvious problem is that a lot of people I interacted with solely through that app will now be more distant. Instagram did allow me a curious and effective social life with some of the better personalities I’ve met on my trips, as well as with friends back home, and I’m sorry to disappear so abruptly for so many that I wasn’t as intimate with. I do know that my wandering around the country would have been worse off without an easy way to stay in touch that Instagram provided. I’m not explicitly planning any grand trips in 2019 yet, so maybe this won’t matter for a bit.

The way forward I see is to find a new arts community to participate in, be it somewhere digital or local. I am determined not to see my photographic prowess atrophy. I also do have a platform, in this website, that I have neglected besides use as a portfolio. I state my intent again to be busy improving things here as well. And there’s always the possibility that Facebook cleans up its act enough that I feel good about returning one day. I’ll leave that door open.