Is Instagram's social network dumbing down photography?
It took a lot of effort to find the “Decentralized Dance Party,” a crowd of a couple hundred people roving Austin on Saturday night with a low-power FM transmitter and a bunch of boom boxes.
So when we located it on a dark side street under a railroad bridge, I used my iPhone to create a trophy of my find: an Instagram photo. Of course I applied a filter to make the photo look more interesting before I tweeted it -- with a location tag, so others could find the party too.
The next morning, I sat down for a South by Southwest panel led by Kristen Joy Watts, who asked if we're using apps like Instagram to create magic or mediocrity.
My photo was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of Instagram images that documented the dance party, and one of 500 million images posted to the service in a year and a half. Was it simply attention-hungry handwaving? Or something worse, a form of visual pollution, a souvenir of an event that apparently wasn't interesting enough without a color filter?
Instagram has been the subject of some debate recently, spurred by a recent post on CNN.com that argued that news organizations “cheat” when they use it or Hipstamatic to capture an image. Some photographers responded by arguing that a filter can't turn a poorly composed photo into a memorable image.
Slate's Heather Murphy argues that the debate over filters overlooks the true power of Instagram: the devoted community of people who share, view and “like” one another's images. In Murphy's story, NPR photojournalist and videographer John Poole described the satisfaction he gets from seeing that feedback, which helps him understand which photos resonate with people.
But Watts' South by Southwest panel was about the downside of the social component. The panelists discussed whether Instagram's Like button, combined with the image filters, has turned the service into performance art, with people trying to rack up Likes for the most aesthetically striking images. The debate was similar to the one over whether Facebook's Like button has dumbed down the Internet.
Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom acknowledged the effect of the Like button. He finds himself worrying that his images won't get enough Likes and even considers taking them offline if they don't.
“I don't want the Like button to be the thing that makes you decide whether to take a photo or not,” he said. The challenge “is when you give people a stage and an audience and tell them not to perform.”
Richard Koci Hernandez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, made it clear that he doesn't believe in the tyranny of the Like button. But he, too, said he worries that “people who have a real passion for photography, who love photography, are putting their photographs out into the world and are not feeling validated.”
“When you open that door, you open that door to greatness … Pollution is bad for you; it kills us. But 100 thousand, gazillion pictures in the world isn't doing anybody any harm, especially for the people who are bringing meaning to these photos.”
The long-term question, said Verna Curtis, curator of photography at the Library of Congress, is what we save. It's something the Library of Congress has been thinking about since the deluge of photographs started with the first snapshot camera in 1888.
Watts noted that the debate isn't really new, quoting Susan Sontag in 1973: “Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing.”
Back then, people were snapping a mere 10 billion photographs a year. Now it's 380 billion.
Curtis pointed out that even banal photos of people's daily lives can be important down the road. “There's lots of historic value in ephemera,” she said. “What are people drinking today and buying today? That's an economic question we're going to want to know in the future.”
In some ways the comparison between photo-sharing and pollution is elitist. The democratization of any kind of media results in a much broader range of quality than if it is confined to the elites or early adopters.
Has there been a proliferation of mediocre blogs that contribute nothing to our collective understanding of the world? Sure. But I haven't seen any panels about whether to shut down Blogger. I don't see anyone at South by Southwest clamoring to pull the plug on Twitter, which literally programmed self-referentialism into the platform.
If there had been a South by Southwest Interactive in the 1970s, would they have debated how the instant gratification of a Polaroid was taking the thoughtfulness out of photography?
There is something about the power of an image, especially one instantly transformed into a Polaroid and thrown to the crowd for a thumbs-up, that strikes a nerve. The discussion will continue as we sort out what makes certain images compelling and whether that can be computed or faked, depending on your viewpoint.
As you think about these issues, please take a moment to Like the photo I took the other night. It would mean a lot to me.