The Joy of Instagram

A new study finds that documenting experiences, far from detracting from them, makes them even more enjoyable.

Ramon Espinosa / AP

Is there any genre of image that better captures the current technological moment than the sea of screens, at a concert or a rally or a show, thrust upward to document a shared experience? The layering of the lights—reflecting an event in the moment, and capturing it for later—neatly conveys the frenetic beauty of life as it’s lived at the dawn of the Internet age. And the anxieties, too, because, you know: Does documenting something cheapen it? Does that sea of screens take something meaningful away from the stage they are aimed at? Does our impulse to snap and Insta and tweet and otherwise capture the events of our lives denude those events, and by extension those lives?

According to a new paper: Nope. Kristin Diehl, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and a team of colleagues wanted to put those ideas to the test. So they conducted a series of lab experiments and field tests designed to measure people’s enjoyment of events when they documented them, as opposed to when they didn’t. And their results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported by Time, suggest that longstanding anxieties about the ‘grammification of experience may be misplaced: Capturing experiences through photos, the team found, far from compromising people’s enjoyment of those experiences, actually seemed to amplify that enjoyment. A photographic mindset doesn’t seem to prevent people from “living in the moment,” as the old accusation goes; it might actually help them to do that living.

“What we find is you actually look at the world slightly differently, because you’re looking for things you want to capture, that you may want to hang onto,” Diehl explained of the study’s results. “That gets people more engaged in the experience, and they tend to enjoy it more.”

It’s not the act of photo-taking itself, to be clear, that leads to that enjoyment; it’s the kind of mental curation that is required when you’re thinking about what is worth documenting in the first place. Instagram makes us the editors of the texts of our own lives; it demands choices about what is significant—and therefore worth saving, and savoring, and remembering—and what is less so. Even the simple act of taking “mental photos,” Diehl said, in the manner of Cam Jansen, is enough to add joy to an experience.

And that seems to be true, the team found, across varied types of experience. Diehl and her colleagues tested the idea on a sightseeing bus, with nearly 200 participants—and found that the people who photographed the sights in question enjoyed the experience much more than those who simply sat and watched and absorbed. They tested it in museums, too: People reported enjoying exhibits more when they photographed them. And, yep, the findings held when it came to that most cliched of activities: the Instagramming of food. The study participants who were encouraged to take photos while they ate lunch, Time notes—in this case, at least three photos—ended up being more immersed in the dining experience than the people who weren’t.

It may come down to the difference between “dining” and merely “eating”—the notion that even something as simple as lunch can be, if you allow it to, An Experience: something worth savoring in the present, sure, but also worth preserving for the future. And, all apologies to Susan Sontag, but what better way to ratify the significance of an event, be it a meal or a party or a concert or anything else, than to take a photo of it? And, in doing all that, to make a memory?