When Facebook bought Instagram last month, pretty much all the media coverage focused primarily on a single narrative thread: how a tiny startup with just 13 employees and no revenue came to be worth $1 billion. That, of course, is an astonishing business story, but in obsessing about the economics of Instagram, its aesthetics -- the real reason why it's so popular -- got short shrift.
Sure, Instagram makes photo-taking and photo-sharing incredibly easy, but there are plenty of apps and services that have been doing the same things for years. Instagram's real triumph is that it makes distorting reality a snap (or, actually, a tap). Quite simply, Instagram makes it easy to lie -- or at least fib -- visually. Or to put that another way, Instagram instantly enables you to become a (visual) bullshit artist.
That value-add is right there in the app's product description: "Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram." If you're an Instagram user, or if you've ever seen an Instagram image, you know that a lot of Instagram filters -- Lo-fi, Sutro, Walden, Amaro, Nashville, 1977, and so on -- basically do the same thing: They alter contrast and distort color balance to make digital images look old-timey and Polaroid-ish. (The square Instagram aspect ratio and the app's icon, of course, are specifically meant to echo Polaroid photography.)
Many Instagram filters also soften focus and add a layer of haze that is , again, suggestive of analog film photography. (Competitor Hipstamatic does basically the same thing, describing itself as "an application that brings back the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras from the past." But since Instagram rules the photo-sharing app space -- it passed the 50-million-user mark by the end of April, boosted by the Facebook purchase and the release of an Android app -- I'm focusing on Instagram.)
You can partly explain the appeal of Instagram as being about nostalgia, but keep in mind that the Generation Y/millennial and Generation Z demos are digital-photography natives who have likely never shaken a Polaroid picture or handled an analog-film camera of any sort. So the retro angle is only a part of it. The bigger picture is that just about everything -- landscapes, buildings, people, pets, food -- looks better and more compelling filtered through Instagram than it does in real life.
Now, what's really fascinating about Instagram's 19-month rise to ubiquity (the app launched in Apple's App Store on Oct. 6, 2010) is that it's happened at the same time that there seems to be ever-rising outrage over the sin of Photoshopping. Earlier this month, for instance, The New York Times reported on the efforts of a Maine eighth-grader named Julia Bluhm to persuade Seventeen magazine "to commit to printing one unaltered -- real -- photo spread per month," as her Change.org petition puts it. "I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that 's supposed to be for me." (As of this writing she's a little over halfway to her goal of getting 150,000 signatures, and the magazine's editor-in-chief has already met with her.)
Last December, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus got Procter & Gamble to pull a "postproduction-enhanced" photo in a print ad for its CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara. And last summer, Britain's Advertising Standards Authority banned L'Oréal print ads starring Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts for being "overly airbrushed."
On the one hand, truly egregious Photoshopping -- the sort that , for instance, makes already slender models stick-thin -- deserves condemnation. And digital manipulation that results in a marketer making what amounts to a false product claim also deserves censure.
But then again, in some cases it gets rather conceptually weird when you think about it for a second. I mean, banning makeup ads -- makeup having predated Photoshop as a means of deception by at least 5,000 years -- for being too deceptive? (Very fake -- which most cosmetics ads are by definition -- is OK, but very, very fake is not? How fake is too fake?) And, in general, denouncing "post-production-enhanced" photos in the Age of Instagram? That's just ... confusing.
The truth just might be that we can't handle the truth -- the digital "truth," at least. We've somehow been convinced by companies such as Canon and Nikon -- to cite two photography conglomerates that have successfully transitioned their product lines from analog to digital -- that megapixels don't lie. That higher resolution is somehow truer to life.
But the reality is that digital is just another type of simulacra -- endless streams of 1's and 0's that offer an antiseptic, and often brutal, take on reality. Digital is unforgiving in a way that the human eye isn't. A 20-megapixel camera can detect -- and bring into jarring relief -- the laugh lines around even a 20-year-old's mouth.
All of which makes me think of a famous Susan Sontag observation from her collection of essays titled "On Photography": "To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder -- a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time."
"On Photography" was published in 1977. In the 35 years since then, photography has only gotten more brutal, more murderous. We're all armed and dangerous now.
If we're all constantly getting violated -- not only symbolically possessed, but unceasingly vaporized into a digital mist that fluffs up the Facebook "cloud" ad infinitum -- it's no wonder that millions of us are so eager to use a service that promises to "filter" reality -- whatever reality is .
Because deep down, we know that the digitally manipulated lie is more appealing than the truth.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.