Instagram: Just what you were looking for?

Instagram retro poster

Immediately upon release, Instagram found a way to rise above the masses of photo-sharing apps. Within a week, they had 100,000 users [3], and continued to grow exponentially, now supporting over 300 million active users [1]. During the weeks of its initial launch, this left many people wondering what made Instagram so special [2,3,4]. Many websites argued that it was elements like its ability to connect multiple existing social media platforms, its charming filters, and its sense of community.

“A community of people who enjoy making and taking photos […] Everything about it feels intimate and personal” – Faruk Ates, tech reviewer

However, in the context of emergent media, these qualities are not new or original.

Tom Gunning [6] explains in his essay Renewing Old Technologies that there is often a feeling of the “uncanny” that comes with new technologies. There’s a sense of familiarity, but there is also an unavoidable alien quality to it – there is something new and different. This is part of the excitement of it. The vaguely uncanny quality is what energizes the public and makes them curious. It’s not a turn-off from the item, but rather the catalytic force that pushes it into public speculation.

At first, Instagram appears to not have these qualities. It seems that the initial success of Instagram was actually because of its abundance of familiarity and lack of uncanniness. Picture sharing had already become an integrated part of our culture. To do it digitally was culturally expected, as evidenced by Instagram’s competitors and predecesors such as Camera+ and Hipstamatic. Consumers were looking for a way to share mobile photos easily and conveniently, and Instagram filled this hole rather than carve out a new one. However, even during its very successful launch many people worried about its long-term use. I think this is because they could sense the familiarity of it and were afraid it would pass as only a fad.

 “The hardest think for Systom and Instagram to do will be to keep growing and to retain users.”

– Dan Frommer, Business Insider

Though I think that its familiarity helped it to gain success, I do not believe that that was what led to its long-term success. I think Gunning’s theory is right that uncanniness battles a new technology’s descent into de-familiarization. I think that Instagram’s uncanny qualities emerged later through the way mass culture applied the app, and this is what led to its lasting popularity.

Instagram represents a cultural fulfillment of our growing need to document and preserve moments [5]. Later, we can emotionally recycle them as we scroll through our galleries and timelines. It is uncanny how we are actively carving out our own memories and deciding how we want to relive the moment later. Wanting to preserve memories may be a normal human reaction, but how realistically we can now capture the present and stick it inside of a time capsule is what is unnatural. Instagram has helped to apply social pressure to become directors and artists of our own memories – by applying the perfect photo filter. This duality of the present that has stemmed from apps like Instagram solidifies its continued impact in present culture.

Works cited:

1. “Instagram.” Instagram. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
2. “Faruk Ateş.” The Addictive Allure of Instagram, on FarukAt.eş. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.
3. “A Pivotal Pivot.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.
4. “Instagram Launches With The Hope Of Igniting Communication Through Images.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.
5. Riis, Jason. “Chapter 11.” Living, and Thinking about It: Two Perspectives on Life. By Daniel Kahneman. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N.
pag. Print.
6. Gunning, Tom. “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century.”Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. 39-60. Print.
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