I’ve recently got into Instagram.

When I say ‘got into’, what I mean is that part of me really loves the fact that Instagram means I can turn my pretty average phone photos into what are now, IMHO, beautiful works of art. And even better, I can then share my masterpieces with the world. And it seems I’m not the only one getting into Instagram. The company recently dropped the stat that over 30 million accounts have been set up, a level of success that prompted Facebook to acquire the company this week, in a whopping approx. $1 billion deal (compare that with the measly $35m that Yahoo paid for Flickr in 2007).

Of course it’s still possible that you’ve not come across Instagram before – especially if you don’t have a smart phone, or you have one running on Android(it’s only recently been released in Android format). So, simply put, Instagram is a free-to download mobile phone app doubling up as a photo-sharing website, first released in October 2010. Doesn’t sound too breath-taking or revolutionary when you put it like that, but its killer feature is offering an array of digital filters that quickly and simply turn your photos into the aforementioned beautiful works of art that even yours truly can come up with, which you can then share with the Instagram community. It also confines all photos to a Polaroid/Kodak Instamatic-style square shape (hence the name), as in the example, which is actually surprisingly attractive. Now again, seeing all this in writing doesn’t make it sound particularly special. You really need to view Instagram to get a feel for the images it’s producing.

A quick peruse on the app and you can see a selection of the most ‘popular’ current images, i.e. those that are being most commented on and ‘liked’ by Instagram’s online community of account holders. It’s fair to say that most of these are quite arty shots that make use of the app’s vintagey, sun-bleached and faded-feel filters. For example, last night there was a silhouetted shot of an aeroplane over a sunset, two girls puckering up to a camera, and, in what seems to be a regular feature, a fan’s shot of the boyband One Direction. All clearly had the filters applied meaning they looked, well… cooler. Now some have criticised the way in one click the app is short-cutting the skills of professional photographers and editors, and that all our photos will now look the same. But there’s no denying that the filters and effects mean that even the most mundane image, e.g. my laptop on my desk, can have a really attractive air of retro-cool about it.

Instalaptop

I’m trying to decide whether or not this is a passing style or whether there’s something about the aesthetics of these filters that makes them more attractive to most people. It’s not quite air-brushing because you’re not tampering with individual details. Instead your transforming the whole image, and giving it a different feel, more in keeping with a magazine ad or photoshoot. I guess you could say it’s giving the image a lift. It’s making it special. It’s making the mundane beautiful.

Like most apps, linking it up to the likes of Twitter and Facebook mean that your images can then be shared and seen beyond your Instagram followers, i.e. with what is likely to be a much larger number of FB friends compared with the number of Instagram followers you have. And, obviously, there’s a lot of fun in this – being able to capture moments quickly, being able to share them both with those who were with you and those who weren’t, being able to enjoy beautiful or unusual or funny things that catch your eye and then transform them with the filters.

But as I’ve been playing with it, it has got me thinking: where does Instagram’s attraction really lie? Ok, so it may be a highly functional little app, but what is it about what is produces that appeals to me, and 34,999,999+ others so strongly? Tim Chester recently questioned on a blogpost whether, for all Facebook’s positives and advantages, it is also having a negative effect on the way we think about ourselves and relate to others. One of the areas he pinpointed was the way Facebook enables me to ‘recreate my world through my words to gain approval’, i.e. the whole set-up of Facebook encourages us to effectively edit and create a public persona of ourselves (through our profile description, photos, activity), based on what we want to show to others. I think there’s a huge amount of mileage in what Chester’s suggesting and I certainly feel that tension he describes in my own heart: I may choose to only list the job information I want people to see about me, I may ‘like’ particular news items because of the impression it will give to others, I may select and upload certain photos because of what I think they say about me… And all the time I’m selecting certain ‘information’, whilst also choosing to conceal other information, and all so that my friends will think better of me for it.

And I think Instagram is really attractive for exactly the same reasons: I get to display the parts of my life that I feel are attractive, showing them off to others, giving people the impression of who I am that I so desire. And not only that but I can do my own Instagram-style ‘air-brushing’; I can give everything that warm retro glow. I can make my life seem very ‘happy’, very ‘cool’. Now you might think I’m going overboard and this is taking it a bit too seriously, but since using the app I’ve genuinely started to think, ‘Ah, I could put that on Instagram…’. The happy time with friends, the treat I’m enjoying, the beautiful view. Yes, there’s a sense in which it’s great to celebrate those good things, but equally my heart wants you to think better of me because of the images I select, and the impression they give about me: i.e. ‘his life is fun’, ‘he’s cool because he’s got that’, ‘he seems to have a very sorted life’. Likewise, what am I not selecting: that argument with my wife, the mundane bits of my life, the ‘unsmiley’ realities of our existence. And the desire for me to project certain impressions, whilst at the same time concealing others, all comes from my eagerness to be approved and valued and rated, ultimately as much better than I actually am. I want to Instagram my life to you.

I love the app and for now I’ll certainly continue to use it (ask me again in 6 months…). And it does produce some beautiful images. But it is clear to me that the desires of my heart are tied in with why I find Instagram so appealing and, because that’s not always a good thing, then its also something I need to be aware of.

What do you think?