Monday, February 12, 2018

Thoughts On Instagram

Somehow I missed Ingrid Goes West during its theatrical release last summer. But it turned up on the screen menu on my recent flight to LA. I knew nothing about it and I had two hours to kill so I took a chance. Dammed if Ingrid Goes West didn't turn out to be the best film I've ever seen about Instagram. It may in fact be the only one, but let's not split hairs.

The opening montage sets the tone for later events, a series of brief clips showing Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) engaged with her Instagram account in various situations. Wherever she goes —in a restaurant, on the toilet, walking, by her nightstand before sleep— she's in deep meditation with her phone. In other words, she looks a lot like many people we see in public nowadays. Which might be ok under some circumstances, but Ingrid appears to have no real-world friends whatsoever. Instead Instagram has supplanted her natural social fabric.


From Ingrid Goes West




The key member of Ingrid's online community is Taylor Sloane, a lifestyle guru and Instagram star in Los Angeles. Ingrid tracks her every move through IG. Obsession transforms into creepiness as Ingrid goes west, makes an awkward attempt to befriend Sloane —no, to become her— and gradually insinuates herself into her life. Ingrid's infatuation spirals into self destruction. By the time she hits rock bottom she's squatting in a vacant bungalow with the utilities cut off, her money exhausted, stalking her fantasy BFF next door. It gets even worse from there but I won't give away the ending. Suffice to say it's a modern dramedy —albeit a very dark one— and a morality tale. One take home lesson: Beware Instagram. Beware the fuck out it.

Ingrid's journey is an extreme case but I suspect most people reading this can relate to it on some level. Instagram has a way of worming its way into your life and then expanding its hold. If left unchecked it can supplant reality. Initially it fills the small moments between larger tasks. Soon enough it becomes a daily fix. Other duties are pushed aside.... Excuse me a moment....OK, there...Now, where was I?... Sorry, writing is harder than it once was. I can hardly finish a paragraph now without interrupting every twenty seconds to check my Instagram feed. Sometimes I can go thirty. Obviously I'm joking. Sort of. But Instagram does work its dark magic in subtle ways. 

Apparently there is an entire network of so-called "influencers" like Taylor Sloane who make an actual income posting photos of their daily lives. I'm not sure how it works exactly, something to do with sponsorships or glamour or other inane shit. Products get plugged, fantasies take root, etc. These people serve the role of micro-celebrities, a few notches down from Hollywood and magazine covers but still able to leverage their status into a decent living. A good gig if you can get it. 

That's one application for Instagram. But honestly I find few things more boring than celebrity. What I'm more curious about is Instagram's relationship with photography? It is, after all, the primary online sharing platform for photographers today —at least until something better comes along. How does the medium shape the message?


From Be Here Now, 1971, Ram Dass
One key trait of IG is its ephemeral nature. I was a fan of Ram Dass back in the day, and his famous adage could be the motto of Instagram: "Be Here Now". Only one image is shown at a time before it's replaced by another. Viewers tend to scroll through these images quickly, and any given photo has only a split-second to make an impression. 

The fleeting nature of the medium rewards simple, direct photographs. Images whose subtleties might require more time to digest, or with small bits of visual data difficult to view on a phone, do not work was well. Pun-oriented street photos tend to work well. So do pictures of your breakfast. Large format desertscapes? Hmm, not so much. 

I'm as much as victim as anyone. When I place photos on IG I find my choices are subtly conditioned by the environment. I usually post simple, obvious photos. But those are generally the type I take anyway with my phone so it all works out.

There's also the streaming structure of Instagram to consider (I wrote about this a few years ago in regard to Tumblr). Instagram combines various streams into a central pipeline, separating individual photographs from any original context. They're then reorganized and fed to viewers according to their personal taste. This means that photos must survive on their own, away from projects, supporting text, or historical ties. All of which further reinforces the drive toward simple, direct messaging. 

Of course streaming isn't just for Instagram. It's the basic distribution model for all digital media. Whereas once upon a time a person might buy films, books, or music to incorporate into a personal collection, increasingly such content is no longer owned. The hivemind cloud is the library, containing virtually all creative output. Just dip your beak when you want and let it flow. For photographers a viewer is less likely to buy or own a physical photograph than to simply stream it on Instagram. One could say that IG is the Spotify of photography, with similar backroom algorithms directing viewership to certain content. In both platforms, you are shown content according to previously established taste. 


Caught in the Instagram stream


Spotify has a slightly different payment structure. In theory bands are paid per stream. But for most bands the amount is negligible. I don't think Instagram's micro-celebrity model is tenable on Spotify. Unless you are Kendrick Lamar the financial equation is virtually the same as Instagram: leasing content for peanuts/free.

Damon Krukowski makes a strong case that Spotify's payment system is a corrupt model. He advocates the elimination of royalties, to be replaced by free streaming for all online content. Artists would make up the difference on physical sales, or live presentations, or, I dunno, somehow or other. It's never made quite clear. 

In other words, Krukowski wants Spotify to become more like Instagram or Youtube. You can go onto either service today and stream content repeatedly at zero expense. For photographers, this is more or less the way it's always been. Jpegs are extremely hard to monetize, so streaming photos for free makes a certain amount of sense. There might be some drawbacks to Spotify adopting this model, but at least it would wrest control over music from corporate tastemakers, who'd no longer be incentivized to hype certain content over other content. 

Anyhoo...Once you begin posting to Instagram there are subtle rewards which encourage you down the rabbithole. The most obvious are likes (❤️s). Back in Tumblr's heyday notes served a similar purpose. But ❤️ s on Instagram are much easier to come by than notes ever were. A quick double tap on the phone screen does the trick. Why hold back? Each one sends a little dopamine jolt to the original poster, and maybe to the liker too. It's like waving a flag near a bull. Red is a powerful color, in this case the color of affirmation. Instagram and their parent company Facebook use it strategically. Blue, on the other hand, might be more of a downer, although it's said to work well in content.

The other thing you want is followers. At the top of Instagram's screen is your running tally to date, centered above the kingdom below like the third eye of Ram Dass. Or perhaps video game scoring is a better comparison. Use Instagram longer and better and you'll see the score creep upward. Where does it end? Furthur, that's where. Like Tetris or Donkey Kong, a process which might be enjoyable enough on its own is given a goal-oriented twist, and thus winds itself a bit tighter across the ❤️ . 

Generally most reactions to a new post occur within the first 24 hours before quickly tailing off. The quantity of followers or likes is irrelevant. A new post always yields a similar curve:



After about an hour, most photos will generate enough data to extrapolate the total number of likes a photo will ever receive. The curve doesn't lie. Let the red line mark one hour, count likes at that point, then scale along the curve to any later date. Whether you have 1,000,000 followers or 50, collectivized nature rarely varies. It's almost as if we're mere numbers plugged into a cosmic scorekeeper, just passing time until judgement day. 



The fun posts occur when the curve does lie, or seems to. Anyone who has posted photos to Instagram has had the experience of uploading an absolute no-doubt winner, only to see it fall flat online. Sometimes the opposite happens. You post a photo you're lukewarm about, just to test the waters, and it gains more traction than expected. The curve isn't actually lying about these —the shape never varies— but its scale can offer surprises. And these surprises are one of Instagram's best lessons. You're essentially using hivemind to get outside eyeballs on your photos. It's a quick litmus test, useful as long as you don't become overly reliant.

How to gain ❤️ s and followers? Let me count the ways. There are a million strategies. I've heard you can buy both online somewhere, but what fun is that? Fortunately most methods are contained in a concise book called How To Win Friends And Influence People. It was written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie. He never saw a computer in his life yet somehow managed to outline the basics for Instagram ❤️ sArouse in the other person an eager want, begin in a friendly way, give honest and sincere appreciation, and so on. The advice basically boils down to the golden rule: double tap unto the photos of others as you would have them double tap unto you. It seems to work.

One thing that post-dates Carnegie are hashtags. If employed strategically they will help your posts get more views. That's what they say anyway. Personally I have no idea how to use them effectively, so I just avoid. I don't use them in captions and I certainly don't use them to search. Maybe others do, I don't know. Whatever their impact hashtags always look the same to me in a caption, an ugly clutterfuck of words in the peripheral vision, the visual equivalent of chicken scratch marks in a dusty pen or graffiti layered up in a train yard. If the goal is clean graphic beauty, hashtags are the enemy.


With all the various strategies for success, the photographs themselves can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It's not that they don't matter. But their importance often seems secondary in the grand scheme. Almost any photo posted to an account with X followers or by K person will get❤️ s. The equation in this Instagram Euler Form (see figure, right) is accurate within a ❤️ percent margin of error. This formula provides a cover for a wide range of Instagram photographers, many of whom are just going through the motions with no real sense for where to point their cameras or what makes one photo better than another. 

That said, images are still the ❤️ of the matter, and they've gotta come from somewhere. Some folks curate outside photos by others or from their collections. Some post older work from their archives. Some adopt the Taylor Sloane model, creating a cult of personality that supersedes any specific work.

The streams I find most exciting show new or unseen original photos. I follow a wide variety of these but my current favorite is Jeff Mermelstein, whose recent foray into text message screenshots is as creepy as it is amazing. They are often so penetrating I feel squeamish reading at them. There is no good way to make those photos without stalking people closely. That's step one. Step two is to then share these private conversations on the web —among the most invasive actions possible. It's forbidden territory, yet Mermelstein plumbs it regularly with consistently entertaining results. The coup de grĂ¢ce  is the IG feed where he reveals the project in real-time, on the same platform he surveils. I doubt any have made it into print form. They exist in, of, and by the cell phone. He is basically inventing a new visual language before our eyes, exploring boundaries of voyeurism, surveillance, privacy, and what street photography can be in the digital era. 




I especially like that these are a mid-life departure for Mermelstein. I have all of Mermelstein's books and I know his photos fairly well. For decades he worked more or less as a traditional street photographer. Line up scenes, shoot from mid-distance, etc. He was head and shoulders above most other photographers, but the nuts and bolts weren't too dissimilar from what most street shooters do.

Mermelstein was good and relatively successful. He easily could've kept going down that path. Instead he threw out his entire practice and started over. The Leica sits on a shelf now. All he uses is a phone. To see someone in that position take such a gamble, then land successfully in an entirely new world is inspiring. Why it's not being written up anywhere is a mystery to me. I've seen articles in past several weeks touting the Instagram accounts of various photo celebrities —Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Pete Souza, for example— but nothing yet on Mermelstein. 

Jeff Mermelstein, if you're out there somewhere reading this, I ❤️ what you're doing. Keep it up. Be here now and all that. But, Jeff, one small piece of advice. Beware Instagram. Beware the fuck out of it.