For 25 years after the web commercialized, the things people made online—for home pages, blogs, and eventually social-media sites—happened separately from the devices used to view and interact with that material after publication. A photograph would have to be scanned and uploaded, for example. Text, too, would often be authored somewhere else, then uploaded or emailed.
Eventually, services like Facebook and Twitter tied composition to the platform on which it would be shared. But even then, the process involves translation. When Facebook’s post field asks, “What’s on your mind?” the poster must review their world, process it, and then transform it into writing, video, or sound.
But since 2007, people have been filtering their lives through the window of the smartphone. That name is vestigial now, because it’s only incidental that an iPhone or a Pixel is a telephone. Instead, it’s a frame that surrounds everything that is possible and knowable. A rectangle, as I’ve started calling it.
The rectangle now frames experience. Information is rectangle-shaped, retrieved from searches in Google or apps or voice assistants. Personal communication comes in the form of a list of bubbles spilling down a rectangle. The physical world can be accessed by a map scaled to the boundaries of the rectangle, which can also provide way-finding through it. Music, movies, and television appear on these screens, and increasingly there alone. The rectangle is also an imaging device, capable of capturing a view of the world in front of it and the operator behind it.
Media formats—the actual things people create, use, and share—have been adapting to the smartphone as a platform for both authoring and display. But they’ve been remarkably slow. The 16:9 aspect ratio of most phones makes it easy to watch movies and television, but it also creates a tension between the “natural” way to hold the phone—upright—and the sideways format. The camera continued to produce native images and movies in a 4:3 aspect ratio, that of a pre-HD television.
Instagram offered the first strong signal that these holdovers of prior media were insufficient. To obviate the need to chose an orientation for photos, Instagram pictures are square, recalling the six-by-six-centimeter negatives of medium-format cameras, like the Hasselblad. But this move, along with its simulated-film filters, ties the service to the long lineage of fine-art photography. Why do you think Stephen Shore likes the service so much?
Not so, a Story. It is composed in the heretofore ghastly 9:16 aspect ratio. This is an unholy view, like a widescreen television on its side. But it’s also the standard view of the smartphone display. Taking a photo or video in this orientation clearly and quickly signals that the rectangle is its source.
It’s not just photos, either. Screenshots from the apps where people spend more and more of their time, in messaging conversations, for example, also take this shape. In fact, this tendency drove one of Facebook’s newly announced features: a software integration for Stories that would allow direct posting from an app. A song playing in Spotify, for example, will be able to be inserted into a Story natively, with a link back to the track in question.