Tweaking On Instagram

Clive Thompson explains the hot new app, and why he's addicted to it:'s a brilliantly simple concept: You snap pictures on your phone, apply one of a dozen filters that work various forms of retro-izing algorithmic hoodoo -- remaking them Lomo style, for example -- after which you upload the pictures to your stream. Then it's off to the social-media races! You subscribe to other folks' photo streams, comment or "like" other photos, check out the trending "popular" photos, etcetera etcetera. I was instantly, and horribly, hooked. Sure, I have lots of apps on my phone, and I check some of them very, very often. But my Instagram behavior verges into the realm of what one could more properly call tweaking. Apparently I'm not alone; after only one month in business, Instagram has already amassed well over 500,000 users. But why? What's the allure?

As many have noted, some of Instagram's appeal is that it's so perfectly simple, with none of crufty bells and whistles that plague, say, Facebook. Instagram is simpler even than Flickr: As Faruk Ates pointed out, you're not trying to collect and curate photos. You just see something and -- boom -- in about 15 seconds you've shared it with everyone in your network. And while, sure, there are photos on Facebook and Twitter, it turns out there's something weirdly hypnotic about following the lives of your friends through nothing but images. Given that Instagram's user base is very international (for now, anyway), the most-popular page of photos is like a constellation of slices-'o-life from around the globe. About half the people I'm following are total strangers in Russia, Korea and Argentina who take strikingly cool pictures.