Twitter officially arrived when Captain Sullenberger sent US Airways flight 1549 splashing down into the Hudson. Instagram's moment was last week, when forty-nine states—fully ninety-eight percent of American states—were doused with snow.
Instagram arrived with the sound and fury of the blizzard outside: A flurry of pictures from dozens of people depicting hundreds of scenes from a winter wonderland (or whited-out hellscape, depending on your choice of filter), all as if they were taken with cameras brought by time travelers from 1947.
The genius of Instagram is that it's really three apps in one: a camera app with swizzy filters, like Hipstamatic; a social network for sharing photos; and an insanely quick way to push photos to every other social network you use instantly and selectively, like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Instagram nails the most fundamental thing about all of these tinted, faded, scratched, washed out, oversaturated, antiqued and otherwise digitally abused photos: We want to share them.
We also want to see them, at least from our friends. Instagram is a more personal social network. It's only accessible via my very personal computer, my phone. I'm only following a small group of people who reveal little snippets of their lives exclusively via photos. My eyes don't glaze over at every new post, because my feed isn't clotted with junk. There are no news organizations or websites or stuff for work like Twitter. No people from high school I only really talked to when they wanted to copy my homework like Facebook. (This is the idea behind Path, it turns out, and a good one! Just not all by itself.)
The other-other must-have photo app, Hipstamatic, in its slavishness to a particular mode of execution—the clunkiness of the dirt-cheap camera it digitally resurrects and impersonates—makes shooting and sharing exponentially slower. And the major reason to use it, filters, are done nearly as well in Instagram. Instagram's are better, practically speaking, because you can see what each filter does before you commit to it, unlike Hipstamatic. Given that it's a social network designed around taking and sharing photos that are almost exclusively digitally manipulated to appear vintage-y or to appeal to what the mainstream culture has collectively decided is a hipster aesthetic, it might raise some hackles for folks who are particularly creaky about the rise of faux-vintage photography. A genocide of authentic bits, committed in the name of aesthetics.
The thing about filters is that they arise from a very specific set of conditions. Namely, as good as the iPhone camera can be, it still sucks in a lot of situations. Filters take the grimy limits of cellphone cameras and transmogrify them into something aesthetically palatable, photos that are good enough people want to share them. It's like any other form of photo manipulation, whether it's in Photoshop or on your iPhone. Ready-made, instant filters democratize the act of producing interesting photography, much like frozen dinners turned every nine-year-old into their own personal chef. This is even as the very act of democratization begins to produce the opposite effect: Filtered photographs look less interesting once you start seeing 50 of them a day. Now, they're effectively period pieces, photos of a certain time and space. In this case, our cellphones in the first two years of the 2010s.
But more to the point, as Susan Sontag puts it in On Photography: "The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight against boredom." Instagram taps this instinct better than any photo app out there, and mixes it up with a dose of voyeurism as your friend's photos pour into the feed, for a heady mix of visual stimuli. It's the photographic zeitgeist of 2011, rolled into a free app.
I've seen a dozen blizzards, but I've never seen them look like this before.
Top photo by Nick Bilton