By now, just about every social media ninja on the planet has had an opportunity to weigh in on Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. The debate appears to be evenly split between whether all those blurry yellow photos are worth $1 billion (unscientific summary: maybe not) and how loyal Instagram users will react to being sucked up into Zuckerberg’s big blue and white vortex (unscientific summary: some users are real mad).
What no one seems to be talking about is that Instagram’s continued popularity, not its merger with Facebook, might be the biggest threat to its long-term success. In a long and thoughtful essay published last year at TheSocietyPages.org, Nathan Jurgenson, a PhD. student at the University of Maryland took a careful look at what he calls “faux vintage” photography.
The appeal of all those faux vintage Instagram filters, as Jurgenson argues in his essay, is that they offer “a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of authenticity that digital photos posted on social media often lack.” He believes that Instagram allows us to “make our photos seem more important, substantial and real. We want to endow the powerful feelings associated with nostalgia to our lives in the present.”
The problem is that authenticity is no longer a permanent attribute in our slippery, post-post-modern era. Last October, The New York Times noticed the overload of handmade objects populating furniture and design stores and asked “have we finally reached a saturation point, where the ‘authentic’ loses its eternal quality and becomes just another fad?”
In the same way, Jurgenson notes that over time, “faux-vintage photos devalue and exhaust their own sense of authenticity.” He also argues that vintage filters might eventually come to be associated with smartphones, not the old cameras and film stock that those filters are supposed to be emulating. At which point Instagram will cease to provide the realness it initially promised.
To be clear, this is not the type of backlash that occurs when an indie band gets too big and early fans abandon them for a new and more obscure set of musicians. Instead, it’s like watching your favourite band turn into a snake that’s slowly eating its own tail.
For Instagram, the challenge is figuring out what happens when their users, through their own enjoyment of the service, drain the last traces of authenticity from it. Printstagr.am, a new service that “develops” your Instagram photos into t-shirts, stickers, posters and minibooks might help turn the tide, as it turns purely digital artifacts into permanent physical keepsakes. Just like old cameras used to do.
Or Instagram might need to look to the future, not the past, as it evolves its filters. Decim8, for example, offers a number of glitchy filters that destroy, not enhance, your photographs.
Welcome to 21st century digital authenticity.