What the Instagram backlash says about the future of media

For a simple service that lets people share their photos with others from a mobile device, Instagram gets a lot of criticism, bordering on hate. And it’s not just because the tiny startup is being acquired by Facebook (s fb) recently for $1 billion, which will make all of its employees exceedingly rich — it’s because some people seem to believe that the ease with which amateur photographers can post photos to the service, and the filters Instagram provides in order to add special effects to them, are ruining photography. This isn’t really that surprising: it’s the same kind of criticism that has been made about blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, among other things — and in each case the critics have been somewhat right, but mostly wrong.
In one of the most recent diatribes about the downside of the Instagram phenomenon, freelance writer and photographer Kate Bevan writes in the Guardian about how the use of cheap filters is debasing real photography — which she says used to require some level of skill to produce, and therefore had some level of quality — and how apps like Instagram and other photo-editing software encourages people to click and add pseudo-artistic effects without really thinking about what they are doing. As she describes it:

“For me, the Instagram/Hipstamatic/Snapseed etc filters are the antithesis of creativity. They make all pictures look the same. They require no thought or creative input: one click and you’re done.”

Should photography be left to the professionals?

Coincidentally, another rant about Instagram appeared at The Atlantic on the exact same day as Bevan’s piece, this one by Atlantic Wire staff writer Rebecca Greenfield. In it, Greenfield looks at the recent meme known as “Rich Kids of Instagram,” which makes fun of the cheesy snapshots that presumably wealthy users have taken of themselves with helicopters, famous people, etc. Like Bevan, the Atlantic writer also talks about how the filters Instagram features were actually based on classic photographic effects that often took a lot of money and time to produce, a point professional photographers also like to make.
Greenfield then discusses some of the archetypal photos that have become commonplace for users to post on Instagram — pictures of their food, their trips to exotic places, and so on — in order to make the point that the service is inherently shallow and fake. As she puts it:

“Some might call the process democratizing —- everyone is a professional! —- but really, it’s a big hoax. Everyone is just pressing buttons to add computer-generated veneers to our mostly mundane lives.”

These kinds of criticisms are not new, as a search for the phrase “Instagram ruining photography” illustrates: notorious technology curmudgeon John C. Dvorak has slammed the service as a “shlock photo-sharing app,” and The Verge hosted a debate in which two of its photo editors took opposite sides of the question. Dutch graphic designer Jaap Grolleman says that thanks to Instagram “we’re drowning in a sea of photos and I think our ability to filter the good from the bad almost disappears… there are only so many ways you can to take a photo of sandwich you and a billion other people had for lunch.”

Grolleman’s comment about lunch reminded me of what people said about Twitter when it first launched — and continued to say for a long time after that — which was that they weren’t interested in people tweeting about what they had for lunch. By now, of course, most people have come to grips with the fact that Twitter can be a powerful tool for distributing breaking news about all kinds of global events, including earthquakes, assassinations and revolutions. And the same kinds of comments were made about blogs as well — that they were just for unpaid writers living in their parents’ basement, and couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.

More photographers are better, and more writers and journalists

Running through many of these criticisms is a kind of anti-amateur argument: real photography should be left to professional photographers, real journalism should be left to professional journalists, and so on. Can tools like Instagram be used to post shallow photos of nothing in particular? Of course they can, in the same way Twitter can be used to post messages about what you had for lunch, and a blog can be nothing but a repository for your ranting about cats, or whatever your personal obsession might be.
But that doesn’t change the fact that these tools also break down the barriers for participation by talented amateurs of all kinds — photographers, writers, journalists and movie-makers. And smart media companies are taking advantage of this, as Sports Illustrated is by running Instagram photos for the first time. A professional photo-journalist made an interesting comment in a story about Instagram that ran in the Telegraph last year. As Teru Kuwayama put it:

“You could make an analogy to the advent of the electric guitar or electronic music. Much to the annoyance of classical musicians, those things made ‘everyone’ a musician. I grew up on punk rock, hip hop and death metal, so I welcome the post-classical age of photography, and the explosion of amateur expression that comes with it.”

That philosophy shouldn’t apply just to photography, but to other kinds of expression as well — including the explosion of amateur writing and journalism that has come through the blogosphere and Twitter and Facebook, and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” that they allow, not to mention the explosion of self-publishing that Amazon’s Kindle has helped to create and even the use of platforms like Reddit for journalism. Are there lots of shallow uses of these tools? Sure there are. But that’s not the important part.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Luc Legay