Sometimes writers mourn the loss of “the web we lost.” They get sad about blogs. They remember a time before Facebook. They sigh and sip their pour-over.
I believe in the motivating power of nostalgia. It can often move people to conserve ideas and objects that are of value. But I believe, too, in appreciating what we have now. It’s summer and fat cumulus clouds skim the sky and green leaves hang lazy on the maples. And so: I am thankful for Instagram.
A few years ago, a friend of mine called Instagram “the best social network” without any irony.
“It’s just the best, Rob,” he said. “The best.”
I was perplexed. Instagram was fine—some friends were there, sure, and I guess I liked looking at pictures of food and mountains—but it didn’t actually teach me anything. It wasn’t full of immediate, thoughtful, or lovely writing. It wasn’t even full of particularly lovely pictures.
And Instagram broke nearly every rule of the beloved web. It disables hyperlinks, except for the precious one you can put in your profile. It prohibits you from downloading images, so re-sharing a friend’s picture requires you to screenshot it and re-upload—which, in turn, leads to the compression-algorithm-ravaged shitpic. (Re-Instragramming, though possible, requires a third-party app.) It only lets you search photos by hashtag.
It is a silly, idiosyncratic piece of software, but so simple. It says: Here is a picture. Here is a picture of a weird bird my friend saw. Here is a picture of my friend celebrating Eid with her brother. Here is a picture of an acquaintance flying over the city where I used to live.
With every photo, I have two options. I can scroll by, or I can say “I saw this and liked it.” Either way, then I scroll some more. It is a place to look at pictures and, maybe, video. It does not do much else. It doesn’t need to.
It is so simple as to be almost serene. In 1996, two researchers at Xerox’s famous personal computing labs hailed the imminent arrival of “calm technology.”
“A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back,” they wrote. They believed inner office blinds, which communicate someone’s availability without drawing undue focus to themselves, were prototypically calm. Recently I have heard the MP3 player—not the smartphone music app, not the mobile-enabled streaming service, but the simple, forever-offline MP3 player—described as calm. I think the old-fashioned wristwatch is pretty calm, too.
Most of our social networks are anything but calm.
“The one complaint about the Internet that I wholeheartedly endorse is that most of these tools have been designed to peck at us like ducks,” said Clive Thompson, an optimistic but incisive Wired writer, a few years ago. “Their business models are built on advertising, and advertising wants as many minutes of your day as possible.”
And irresistibly so, often. In her loving, half-hearted appreciation of Twitter, Kathryn Schulz compares that service to a parasite that “hijacks the nervous system of other creatures, causing them to behave in ways that are against those creatures’ best interests but in the interests of the parasite.”
Instagram, too, can be habit-forming. After posting a photo, sometimes I find myself checking the app every couple minutes, force-reloading to see who has liked my latest post.
But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, chilled out, I can just put something up there and never check back, which I can’t say about any other network. (This is especially likely if you turn off its notifications, as I do.) Instagram moves from the center of my attention to the edge in a way no other social network I know of does.
Five years ago, a social network named Path debuted. It aspired to be something like Facebook for your closest friends, and it enforced this, as it could, by limiting every user to having at most 50 friends. It was a beautiful piece of software, with a design that seemed to think in paragraphs where others stammered out sentences. It raised millions in venture capital.
But Path didn’t catch on, at least not in the U.S. In May, a South Korean social network acquired the app. Its failure was more interesting than its success could ever be. The designer Mills Baker put it best. He predicted that a social network only for your most intimate friends could never work. People like social networks because they’re an efficient way of communicating with many others, but, as he said, “efficiency is the enemy of intimacy.”
“Real intimacy can never, ever be broadcast. It must be either one-to-one or one-off,” he wrote.
Instagram is broadcast, but in its endless scroll, it achieves something like intimacy. In its endless scroll, others’ posts are endlessly—I might say affably—ignorable. You can skip inside jokes. You can miss subtext that pricks someone else’s hearts. You can savor the density of meaning in pictures from close friends and the surface beauty of posts from distant ones.
There are other reasons why Instagram works. It is made of pictures, not text, which makes it less political than Twitter or Facebook, and therefore cheerier. Its conventions are clear but broadly interpretable, so Instagram can look very different to teens than it does to me. And trending on the service seems so impossible that I never, ever worry about it. Instagram is for my friends.
Instagram is the only social network I can leave and return to and immediately catch up. It is the only social network I appreciate more now than I did three years ago. It is where my friend say: Hey. I’m seeing this. Maybe you want to see it, too?
“The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again,” writes the naturalist Helen McDonald. “The albums on my mother’s shelves are full of family photographs. But also other things. A starling with a crooked beak. A day of hoarfrost and smoke. A cherry tree thick with blossom.”
And: “Celestial events terrifying in their blind distances but reassuring you, too, that the world is for ever, though you are only a blink in its course.”
Instagram is where my friends appreciate the spectacular and the everyday. I am grateful for it because it is a place of gratitude—coy, ironic, or earnest gratitude, sometimes, but always gratitude. It shows me what my friends are seeing. It makes my world bigger. It is not perfect. I like it a lot.
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