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The Alluring Myth of Instagram: Cracking the Digital Truth Barrier

May 27, 2012 |  by  |  Featured, Photos, Tech

I love Instagram. And yet, I’m not very fond of the style of Instagram photos. I don’t share the vitriolic distaste that some have for the Instagram style; I simply don’t find the look to be to my taste whatsoever. Rather, it’s the appeal, the very phenomenon of its success, and the beautiful way in which it affects the way we view and appreciate digital photos that I find both fascinating and intriguing.

Instagram is more than just hipster douchebaggery.
It has a more primal draw.

On its surface, Instagram’s obvious appeal is its timely and trendy evocation of things retro. No doubt a large part of its meteoric success has been due to the fact that it not only oozes hipster-chic, the retro cool du jour, but it also makes masterful use of the very best of social media modernity. If there’s one thing hipsters like more than looking cool, it’s being able to look cool in front of their entire social circle.


But Instagram is more than just hipster douchebaggery. It has a more primal draw. Whereas the hyper-concious pursuit of what’s considered capital-C “Cool” is very cerebral, an activity requiring an agonizingly analytical approach by the Painfully Cool, Instagram speaks to us most strongly on a much deeper, more innate level.

Instagram’s deeper and more universal appeal is its ability to evoke nostalgia for the way photography used to make us feel. Through advanced technological fakery, they’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of those poor-quality, candid Polaroids that simply speak to us in a special way, a way in which the undoctored snaps that come out of our phones and digicams do not.

The magic of Instagram is that it they’ve found a digital formula which approximates that limitless detail of film.

When you peer deeply into a digital photo, you eventually arrive at the pixel level, a solid barrier beyond which you know, with a certain cold finality, that no more detail is to be found. However with analog media like film (and painting, sculpture, etc), the image is made up of real objects, globules of photosensitive molecules which have infinite fractal complexity.

While the pixelation of the digital medium, like the depressingly honest clap a casino dealer performs at the end of a shift, reveals that nothing more is hidden, analog film has no abrupt transition, instead performing a magician’s sleight of hand, smoothly redirecting attention from the detail of the scene to that of the medium.

A low resolution Polaroid snapshot might capture only a tiny fraction of a scene’s detail compared to a high-resolution digital photo, but that Polaroid has no hard barrier between the truth of what was captured of the scene and the artificial information, the noise inherent in the medium. This gradual blend of detail distinguishes film photography like Polaroids from what we’ve been accustomed to from the digital photography we typically encounter in our travels along the intertubes.

With the infinite detail available in film, we’re free to peer closer into the photo. Our imagination isn’t hamstrung by the reality of detail that is truly and accurately represented, instead it’s free to explore and find its own imagery among the unbound detail of the noise and film grain, as it is when staring into the sky on a cloud-dotted day or a star-filled night.


The magic of Instagram is that it they’ve found a digital formula which approximates that limitless detail of film. In a case of addition via subtraction, they apply scratches, noise, blurring, oversaturation, and overexposure, all of which actually reduce the detail of the scene, but also serve to more skillfully hide that barrier of absolute truth captured of the scene.

True, that cold digital barrier still exists. The sense of the unbound imagination that is present in a Polaroid is only artificially replicated in an Instagram photo. And yet, I find that it doesn’t really lessen the effect. As evidenced by its near-universal appeal, I think the formula that they’ve hit upon truly does have a deeper effect than just its retro photographic style. Perhaps someday a successor to Instagram will come along and find a way to capture that essence of infinite detail, but without the trendiness of the somewhat clichéd style.    


  1. Ok, but it’s still like 90% hipster douchebaggery, 10% primal draw, right?

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