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|Written by Mike Verdone|
|Friday, 20 April 2012 03:02|
Back in 2008 I wrote a piece for (Cult)ure Magazine about camera technology. There, I riffed about the contrast between gadgetry and true technical improvement.
I assumed that market forces would continue to shove gadgetry down customers' throats, but the hoi-polloi of the marketplace found an out in a place I never expected: Instagram.
Back in 2008 the anti-gadget reactionary force was headed by Holga and the movement-cum-trend of lomography. These cameras used real film and cheap lenses to produce real errors: distorted images, wonky colours, blur, and bokeh. The lomography front advanced, culminating in a company named Impossible restarting the production of Polaroid instant film for those reactionary die-hards who refused to give up their yellowing Polaroid camera, purchased at some expense from Value Village.
Then came Instagram.
Instagram, if you don't know, is an iPhone application that does two very powerful things. One: when you take a photo with it, you can upload that photo to Instagram's servers and spam all your friends via Twitter and Facebook to notify them that you are having an authentic experience. Two, and more interesting for our purposes: you can apply cheesy 1970's film effects to your image.
I'm talking blur and glow, colour distortion, awkward cropping, scratches, and smudges. I'm talking about all the faults of film and cheap cameras. I'm talking about lomography without the expense.
Why would a person with a beautiful 8-megapixel camera, with real authentic multi-element lens (the iPhone 4 camera is no slouch, I assure you) want to trash their own photos?
I think Instragram's 70's look is a reaction to future shock. The cheapness of digital photography (in the sense that you can take and distribute 1000 photos for no cost) is hidden by that 70's look. It's the fake authenticity of retro. Fake care for photos that look as if they cost money to produce.
It's what lomography was about: fighting against the pain and frustration of arcane photographic equipment to produce an authentic-looking photograph. I say authentic-looking because it don't think deliberately using poor tools, in the face of more cost effective tools, naturally produces authenticity. Authenticity is the ghost that lies somewhere between the photographer and the photograph. Between intent and execution.
The Instagram user gets the best of both worlds: authentic looks, no expensive tools required. Instagram knows this. There's a reason their teensy app icon bears the same rainbow stripes as the revered Polaroid Land Camera.
Another thing: the treadmill of camera upgrades (the megapixel race, if you will) is alienating users. You buy a 6 MP camera and next month people laugh because 8 MP is the norm (or that new Nikon DSLR with 36 MP. Hot dang!).
People are tired of playing the upgrade game, but at the same time consumerism and the marketplace are forcing people to keep up with the hot tech. Then you get Instagram and suddenly nobody cares because all your photos are immediately cropped and de-rezed to like 300x300. Nobody knows what kind of camera you have. It's refreshing.
In short you've got a system that both frees you from the upgrade race and imbues whatever you shoot with the ghost of authenticity. It's a win-win.
And it's worth one billion dollars.
That's what Facebook paid for Instagram two weeks ago. It is an odd sum because Instagram doesn't make any money. Like, at all. It runs servers which cost money. It owns users' eyeballs as they scroll the site, but it doesn't make money. Yet Facebook thinks it is worth a billion dollars.
What does Facebook see in Instagram? I'll point you to Paul Ford's wonderful piece in the New York Times Magazine which does a good job explaining it. In short, Facebook is buying Instagram for the love that its users have for it. Instagram users love the service. It feels authentic. It feels like it's not a company, just a nebulous entity that will always be there for its users.
That's not a feeling you can buy. When a respected (but not monetarily successful) startup is bought by one of the big guys, the usual reaction from users is horror and a feeling of ickyness. Big tech buyers never seem to notice this, or care.
Facebook is buying Instagram because Instagram feels authentic. People actually love it. So Facebook thinks that, by buying it, they are buying love and authenticity (kind of sad, if you think about it). Users use Instagram for that fake authenticity, and Facebook is buying the company for users' love and respect, which is not salable.
Suddenly it feels like we're in an opposite yet curiously similar form of the technology race. Instead of slavering for the most advanced technology, trending towards gadgetry, we're reaching for authenticity, and trending towards kitsch.
Tags: apps, authenticity, cant buy me love, cheap art, culture, digital media, facebook, flaws, green, hipster nostalgia, instagram, iphone, nikon, one billion damn dollars, photography, polaroid, social media, technology