Why Is Instagram So Popular?

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If you’re an active social-media user, you can’t deny the phenomenon of Instagram--its trendy derivatives were a hit with PCWorld readers in 2011--and now the app, already popular among iOS gadget owners, is available for Android users as well.

Instagram is a mobile photo-sharing app, but it is also a social network. It's like Twitter with followers, only instead of real-time text updates, you provide photo updates. The app enables you to alter the photos you take with your phone by adding filtered layers that imitate the look of low-end film cameras.

Profile view on the Android version of Instagram.
These days, Instagram photos are cropping up all over Facebook and Twitter feeds. To casual viewers, these discolored, scratched-up, quasi-vintage photos with square, black film backdrops are of dubious quality--so why do users of the app find them so attractive?

Low-Fi Photo Critics

It’s important to consider this low-fi photo trend in context. Not everyone thinks the app has merit. In a Facebook poll of 2000 people, for example, respondents ranked the Instagram photos coming through their Facebook feeds among the most annoying, second only to baby photos.

Jon Seff used a heavy Instagram filter on this photo of his daughter.
Those who participated in the Facebook poll saw the Instagram app as too “gimmicky,” producing “unnecessary photographic effects.” Photography professionals such as Olivier Du Tré also have their criticisms, saying that the app's users are lazy in applying its cookie-cutter filters to photos, which is unimaginative and bad artistic practice. For instance, different areas of a photo require different degrees of lighting or color adjustments--but Instagram applies the same adjustments to every photo.

Originally, when the app debuted, photography purists complained that because Instagram took photos with a filter, it lost the image's original data. Now, Instagram lets you save your unfiltered, original photos by default, eliminating that problem.

Instagram aficionados, however, aren’t interested in originals, or in exactly replicating reality. Macworld Executive Editor Jon Seff, an active Instagram user, appreciates the app because it masks the blemishes in his photos and makes the pictures look more interesting. Otherwise, he says, “they’d be boring on their own.”

[RELATED: Ten Cool Things to Do With Instagram, Instagram App for Android]

Bridging the Gap

Thanks to camera-equipped mobile phones, which have become cheap and ubiquitous, it’s easy for consumers to produce and share photos and other media. In fact, that casual simplicity is Instagram's biggest attraction. (For a look at how it works, see my colleague Ginny Mies's review of Instagram for Android.) However, with convenience and speed come limitations. Taking photos with a phone camera requires less effort and creativity than doing so with a digital single-lens reflex camera--a smartphone’s camera doesn’t have an adjustable lens to tweak, or a shutter or aperture to control.

Jon Seff's Instagram photo of blossoms.
PCWorld Senior Editor Tim Moynihan, who covers cameras, believes that Instagram fills the gap--that it allows people to exert their creativity by choosing which filter and effect fit a photo best.

Macworld's Seff says that having Instagram makes him more thoughtful when he sees something cool to shoot and gets an idea to embellish it. “When I’m walking down the street and I see a funny sign, or something nicely framed, then I think about how to take the photo and use blurring options within the app," he says.

Even so, Instagram users don’t always approach their subjects with an intention, or art, in mind: “Sometimes I just want a fast, quick picture of my kids, and later I might decide to Instagram it,” Seff says.

The Attraction

Nick Veronin's Instagram photo of a bell.
Let’s get to the heart of the attraction. For example, check out the Instagram-processed photo of the bell to the right, with the earthy tones washed out, the white burning through, and the borders cropped. To creator Nick Veronin, and to viewers who “Liked” the photo on Facebook and Instagram, or sent him comments about it on Twitter (he has linked all three of his accounts), the photo has an indescribable appeal.

Veronin takes photos of objects that he thinks are aesthetically pleasing--his shot of this bell, for one, can be understood as a reflection on the mundane. “I think my description on Instagram is ‘seeking beauty in the banal,’” says Veronin.

What is it about these photos that have such a hold on some people’s imaginations? The vintage look and feel of the photos incite a sense of nostalgia, of the good old days or of different eras, Seff says.

But there’s more: The images move the viewer one, two, or three steps away from reality, depending on the heaviness of the filter and blur. Ben Long, a photographer and Macworld writer, explains that Instagram images tend toward abstraction, and are more powerful to viewers because they have to work harder to interpret the images. And, as they do so, viewers escape to whatever feelings, memories, and experiences the images evoke.

Status Updates: Photos vs. Words

When it’s hard to communicate in words, sometimes photos make the task easier, especially when you're bumping up against Twitter character limitations or struggling with self-consciousness as you attempt to express yourself fully on Facebook, where everyone and your distant aunt is on your friends list.

Nick Veronin's Facebook feed with Instagram photos.
“[If you're] describing something funny--writing it verbatim--sometimes it’s better to show it, and it gives more of an impact,” says Seff. He suggests that the emotional impact is heightened because there is ambiguity about what is in the transformed photo in the first place, and what the joke is. Again, you, the viewer, must do more to interpret it, and that inspires a stronger reaction.

To Instagram user and graduate student Heidi Kim, photo updates from Instagram tell personal stories instantaneously: “Usually people are sharing beautiful images, so I feel like it's more positive emotions, rather than people who b**** on Facebook or complain that it's Monday or something like that,” Kim says.

PCWorld Assistant Editor Alex Wawro says that his Instagram photos of food, beverages, or graffiti capture things that are interesting to him, and that the photos are simply a medium of communication.

Wawro's take is close to what Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram, envisioned for the app, as “an instant telegram of sorts” and a “new means of communication.”

Whatever your feelings about Instagram, the trend shows no sign of abating. The Android release of Instagram is ushering in a deluge of new users, and certainly the appearance of more photo “telegrams” on your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Will photo updates become the medium of the future and supplant text updates? If you use Instagram, what do you like about it? If you dislike Instagram photos, why? Tell us in the comments!

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