It's No Longer Hip to Be Square—on Instagram, At Least

Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Nearly five years after it was first released, Instagram has achieved something special, something that has eluded Twitter and Facebook.

With its mix of friend photos, vacation postcards, and pseudo-ads, Instagram has stayed fun, really fun. Along with Pinterest, it’s the only major social network that people actually still like to use. And on Thursday, it announced perhaps the biggest change to its service since it debuted web profiles in 2012.

It will now let users think, as it were, outside the square: photos and videos can now be posted in widescreen and portrait formats.

Previously, Instagram had only let people post square photos. This gave images from the service a characteristic look: If you saw a photo on the news or online that seemed strangely cropped to a square, odds were it came from Instagram.

Users found ways to break out of this. Many people began to upload their photos to Instagram with white bars on the sides, essentially creating widescreen photos within a square frame, like so:

A photo posted by Teju Cole (@_tejucole) on

As more and more phone screens got taller than they were wide, more and more people did this.

“It turns out that nearly one in five photos or videos people post aren’t in the square format,” says Instagram. The company’s blog post laments that, in the square, “friends get cut out of group shots, the subject of your video feels cramped and you can’t capture the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end.”

A portrait photo in the app (Instagram)

In other words, the square frame could literally divide friendships.

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To the change-averse, the company says not to worry, the square will always be loved. “The square format has been and always will be part of who we are,” says a company statement. But it’s hard not to see the widescreen and portrait formats overwhelming ol’ squarey pretty soon. Most smartphones take pictures in portrait and widescreen, as do almost all cameras. (Except, of course, the camera that Instagram partly apes in the first place: the Polaroid SX-70.) It’s hard to see most people cropping a photo for old times’s sake when they can just upload the whole thing.

As my colleague David Sims notes, Instagram also debuted six seconds of the new Star Wars movie on its service Thursday. That video has all the usual Instagram trappings, including the “like” and the “comment” buttons. But on my phone, in widescreen, it doesn’t quite feel like Instagram. It feels a little more mature.

Three years ago, the British singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding asked fans to send her Instagrams from their lives, which were then strung together to make a sepia-toned “lyric video.” That finished product works very hard to get over the square format, projecting the borders of the fan-grams to simulate widescreen. I’ve seen similar effects on cable news, where often the only bystander video to a news event will be in square form.

Types of media come to symbolize certain eras not only because of that type’s ubiquity but because, for a year or a decade, that type filters how we see the world. The epochal example here is the giant photo spreads of Life magazine in the 1960s, but what I remember are the many-newsticker’d cable channels of the early 2000s. For the first half of that decade, CNN and MSNBC would stick as many as three or four crawlers below a talking head. I can’t see video like that anymore without thinking of that era. I bet that, in half a decade, even if an app called “Instagram” is still around and popular, we won’t be able to see a certain kind of over-filtered photographic square without thinking of the early 2010s, either.