How did Instagram become the worlds most popular photography community, without being a community for good photography?
Try asking someone to describe what Instagram is and you'll see just how hard it can be to explain. That’s because Instagram is a lot of things to a lot of people. But the one thing Instagram is not, is a photography community.
When we label people with titles like "photographer," we don't mean that person simply takes photos. By that definition everyone would be a photographer. What we actually mean to say, is that person takes photography seriously, and that they embody what it means to be a photographer. So when I say that Instagram is not a photography community, it shouldn't be a surprise. And yet it is.
You see, most photography communities put a tremendous amount of effort in curating, rewarding and incentivising "good" photography, and that level of meticulous curation sets the tone for the rest of the community. But Instagram makes no effort to cultivate or promote "good" photography. The only thing Instagram does, is what every social media community does—allow content to be easily shared, and provide easy ways to give each other feedback. Although these feedback mechanisms differ in name—likes, favourites, hearts, reactions, followers, etc—they all serve the same purpose, to incentivise and grow community participation. But when you change the context of these mechanisms, you change the meaning.
Receiving a "like" or a "follower" on a photography driven community (like Flickr or 500px) validates your efforts as a photographer because they make it a point to promote "good" photography. More "likes" and more "followers" is just more validation, which makes you contribute, not just more photos, but "better" photos. On photography driven communities, the better the photos you share the more feedback you'll get, and although this may be true on Instagram as well, their community was never aimed at photographers so most of its members aren't contributing "good" photographs. And that changes the meaning of their feedback mechanisms. Because most people use Instagram to simply document, rather than capture compelling content, the feeling you get from their feedback mechanisms are much different than regular photography communities. For example, if you upload an underexposed, compositionally unbalanced, and grainy photo of what you're eating for breakfast and someone "likes" it, you don't feel validated for your efforts as a photographer. Instead, you feel validated on a much more personal level. It's an acknowledgement that someone out there cares about what's going on in your life.
That feeling of personal validation is very powerful, and it compels you to document and share everything. What you look like in the morning, what you eat for breakfast, what you wear to work, your desktop at the office, your lunch, your dinner, etc. With over 100 million people sharing their lives this way, I've come to the conclusion that Instagram is not a photography community, but rather a reality entertainment network comprised of over 100 million different shows, each one using photography as nothing more than a means to broadcast. Now, that's not to say Instagram doesn't have a photography community within it (because it certainly does), but this reality aspect of their platform is affecting the way it's photographers engage with the medium, which has created some really interesting tensions, completely unique to Instagram.
I may no longer look at Instagram as a photography platform, but a lot of people do. To many, Instagram is one of the best ways to share their photography work (perhaps because of sheer size). So you'll find a lot of photographers sharing photos—shot on their previously purchased DSLR—with the Instagram community, just as they would with any other photography community. But adversely, people on Instagram don't consider photos taken with a DSLR camera to be acceptable behavior. This brings us to Instagram's first tension... the "iPhone Only" photographer. Some people may argue that those who use this descriptor in their profile do so as a way to avoid the all too often asked question, "what kind of camera do you use?" But I don't buy that. People who label themselves as "iPhone Only" do so because they want you to know that there are rules to this game and that they're playing by them. First rule of fight club... only fight with a smartphone. DSLRs are illegal. If Instagram was a real photography community, it's members would not hold the equipment you use against you. In fact, most photographers don't like to publically talk about what equipment they use, because it shouldn't matter. But it does on Instagram.
Another growing tension has to do with the use of filters and editing. Although Instagram was designed for people to quickly capture and enhance a photo, these days it's not uncommon to find people going to great lengths, using numerous editing apps, and even editing each others photos before they post them. By the time the photo's finished, it's no longer instant. So in an effort to circumvent the unwritten rules of the game, they've cleverly named these kinds of photos "#latergrams." However, just as it was in the first scenario, there are a lot of people who consider this kind of activity, poor form. But they too have found a way to separate themselves. Only this time, operating under the "No Filter" descriptor. But why would any photographer take issue with filtering, and by extension, editing? Photographers have always made enhancements based on how they wanted the end result to look. Processing has been part of photography since its inception. It just strikes me as odd that people would feel the need to label their photography as such. It's almost as if editing a photograph makes it less authentic in some way...
But that's just it. These two tensions exist because the thing that matters most within the Instagram community isn't good photography but rather authentic and/or instantaneous photography. Their community has an expectation that things are supposed to be real, or instant because it's more akin to reality entertainment than it is photography. And just as it is with reality entertainment, when things are revealed to be scripted (or in this case captured and edited outside the native environment) it's not just disappointing, it's considered cheating. A concept which implies Instagram is some sort of game or competition. Which it is. Complete with a rulebook and a scorecard, where the goal is to amass as many likes and followers as you can. Why? Because it makes you feel good, it makes you feel connected... because it makes you feel like your existence matters. We're so emotionally connected to our Instagram accounts that our number of followers feels like a legitimate measure of our standing in the world. Our life score so to speak. To see someone with more followers than you makes you think they're more popular, or even better than you. And if you find out that they shoot with a DSLR and/or edit their photos using advanced techniques, it bothers you because they're improving their life score in a way that you cannot, or that you feel is not "fair." It bothers you because deep down you want to be able to measure your life in a way that feels authentic, and you can't do that unless everyone is playing by the same rules.
Unfortunately that's not the case. And until the people behind Instagram make it more evident what exactly Instagram is supposed to be, it will remain the way it is—a lot of different things to a lot of people. Some people will continue using it to share their "work," some people will continue using it to simply document their daily musings, and yes, some people will even continue using it to share really great photography. You can use Instagram however you want to use it. But I've come to the conclusion that Instagram is at it's best when people give up their expectations, forget about "likes" & "followers," and use it the way it was meant to be used—to capture and share meaningful moments with the people who matter most.
P.S. Whatever you decide to use Instagram for, there's only thing I recommend you don't do... don't use it to measure how interesting or important your life is. That's not something that should be defined by others.