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What the Instagram backlash says about the future of media

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For a simple service that lets people share their photos with others from a mobile device, Instagram gets a lot of criticism, bordering on hate. And it’s not just because the tiny startup is being acquired by Facebook (s fb) recently for $1 billion, which will make all of its employees exceedingly rich — it’s because some people seem to believe that the ease with which amateur photographers can post photos to the service, and the filters Instagram provides in order to add special effects to them, are ruining photography. This isn’t really that surprising: it’s the same kind of criticism that has been made about blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, among other things — and in each case the critics have been somewhat right, but mostly wrong.

In one of the most recent diatribes about the downside of the Instagram phenomenon, freelance writer and photographer Kate Bevan writes in the Guardian about how the use of cheap filters is debasing real photography — which she says used to require some level of skill to produce, and therefore had some level of quality — and how apps like Instagram and other photo-editing software encourages people to click and add pseudo-artistic effects without really thinking about what they are doing. As she describes it:

“For me, the Instagram/Hipstamatic/Snapseed etc filters are the antithesis of creativity. They make all pictures look the same. They require no thought or creative input: one click and you’re done.”

Should photography be left to the professionals?

Coincidentally, another rant about Instagram appeared at The Atlantic on the exact same day as Bevan’s piece, this one by Atlantic Wire staff writer Rebecca Greenfield. In it, Greenfield looks at the recent meme known as “Rich Kids of Instagram,” which makes fun of the cheesy snapshots that presumably wealthy users have taken of themselves with helicopters, famous people, etc. Like Bevan, the Atlantic writer also talks about how the filters Instagram features were actually based on classic photographic effects that often took a lot of money and time to produce, a point professional photographers also like to make.

Greenfield then discusses some of the archetypal photos that have become commonplace for users to post on Instagram — pictures of their food, their trips to exotic places, and so on — in order to make the point that the service is inherently shallow and fake. As she puts it:

“Some might call the process democratizing —- everyone is a professional! —- but really, it’s a big hoax. Everyone is just pressing buttons to add computer-generated veneers to our mostly mundane lives.”

These kinds of criticisms are not new, as a search for the phrase “Instagram ruining photography” illustrates: notorious technology curmudgeon John C. Dvorak has slammed the service as a “shlock photo-sharing app,” and The Verge hosted a debate in which two of its photo editors took opposite sides of the question. Dutch graphic designer Jaap Grolleman says that thanks to Instagram “we’re drowning in a sea of photos and I think our ability to filter the good from the bad almost disappears… there are only so many ways you can to take a photo of sandwich you and a billion other people had for lunch.”

Grolleman’s comment about lunch reminded me of what people said about Twitter when it first launched — and continued to say for a long time after that — which was that they weren’t interested in people tweeting about what they had for lunch. By now, of course, most people have come to grips with the fact that Twitter can be a powerful tool for distributing breaking news about all kinds of global events, including earthquakes, assassinations and revolutions. And the same kinds of comments were made about blogs as well — that they were just for unpaid writers living in their parents’ basement, and couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.

More photographers are better, and more writers and journalists

Running through many of these criticisms is a kind of anti-amateur argument: real photography should be left to professional photographers, real journalism should be left to professional journalists, and so on. Can tools like Instagram be used to post shallow photos of nothing in particular? Of course they can, in the same way Twitter can be used to post messages about what you had for lunch, and a blog can be nothing but a repository for your ranting about cats, or whatever your personal obsession might be.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these tools also break down the barriers for participation by talented amateurs of all kinds — photographers, writers, journalists and movie-makers. And smart media companies are taking advantage of this, as Sports Illustrated is by running Instagram photos for the first time. A professional photo-journalist made an interesting comment in a story about Instagram that ran in the Telegraph last year. As Teru Kuwayama put it:

“You could make an analogy to the advent of the electric guitar or electronic music. Much to the annoyance of classical musicians, those things made ‘everyone’ a musician. I grew up on punk rock, hip hop and death metal, so I welcome the post-classical age of photography, and the explosion of amateur expression that comes with it.”

That philosophy shouldn’t apply just to photography, but to other kinds of expression as well — including the explosion of amateur writing and journalism that has come through the blogosphere and Twitter and Facebook, and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” that they allow, not to mention the explosion of self-publishing that Amazon’s Kindle has helped to create and even the use of platforms like Reddit for journalism. Are there lots of shallow uses of these tools? Sure there are. But that’s not the important part.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Luc Legay

38 Responses to “What the Instagram backlash says about the future of media”

  1. Instagram currently feels like Facebook circa 2004-05. Where you there back then? If not, then you won’t understand. Similarly to FB, instragram started as something new, different, ambiguous, unknown, and exclusive. ( I would also like to think exclusivity helped spread FB back then) FB has reached its peak and everyone loathes it. Instagram will most likely repeat a similar cycle. It’s really not about the filters. It’s about the engagement of decentralized communities in addition to the act of discovery of other users, places, and things. Flickr should have been Instagram, but they simply missed the boat.

  2. I am a photographer and a good pi tire is a good picture. Ask any photographer what is the best camera, they would say the one you have at hand. Nothing Instagram is doing is ruining photography as a crappy picture can be taken on a Nikon D3 just as well as it can be taken on a cell phone. It doesn’t take a lot to look at a picture and know its a good and thoughtful composition.

  3. As I point out ( Bevan’s point about easy is nonsense. The result is the only things that matters: whether it was easy or hard to create. Check out Picasso’s bike saddle bull. She’s also very misinformed about the role the Instagram filters play in the iphoneography genre. They are really just starter packs.

    Grolleman is also talking nonsense. Online photography is like TV. You don’t tune into the channels you don’t like. No more drowning.

    A lot of this is photo snobbery and fear that more creative people will be able to produce good work without having to spend thousands on kit.

    But so much criticism suggests one thing: we must be doing something right.

  4. Alan Wolk

    Let me throw something else out there: the majority of Instagrammers have no idea that the filters “mimic professional photographic filters that were difficult to produce” – they just like the sharing aspects of the app – the cool/quirky filters are a minor factor. I suspect very few of them know anything about art photography – their definition of a “professional photographer” is more likely to be someone who shoots weddings or news photos.

    I can see why journalists react to bloggers, who are consciously treading on their turf.

    But professional photographers are giving the masses way too much credit if they think most of them have any idea that they are aping their craft.

  5. Wow, Talk about elitist positions. Do your art, and appreciate the efforst of others. I hang professional stuff on my walls, I look at and can enjoy snapshots. Mechanics unite–there are people working on their cars out there.

  6. Gary Austin

    The thing is this is looked at from the point of a photographer commenting on photography. Most Instagram users look at it as a social thing

  7. Coldframe

    Also, I think the danger is confusing social media skills for photographic talent. If you follow me and like my photos and tell me how awesome they are, I’ll return the favour for yours. So we’ll pat ourselves on the back and delude ourselves we’re good.

    Some very good photographers have emerged on Instagram, btw. But they are vastly outnumbered by people with little photogrhic talent who are just posting photos for fun….and what’s wrong with that?

  8. Coldframe

    I don’t think Instagram is ruining photography at all. The only problem I see is that there’s an awful lot of crap that gets hundreds of likes and “awesome shot” comments from people who couldn’t tell a good picture from a bad one. So lots of rubbish snappers are living under the delusion they are good photographers.

  9. I am a hobbyist photographer & I use DSLRs and an Olympus E-PL1, a sort of “mini DSLR.” To me, the backlash against Instagram is completely appropriate. I agree 100% with all of it. People have the right to do as they wish, but I get tired of camera-phone photographers making out like snapping their sloshed out girlfriend dancing topless on the hood of their VW Microbus and applying a “filter” to it is “photography.” It ISN’T. You can zap Stouffer’s lasagna in a microwave & it may taste pretty good, but that doesn’t make you a chef. Furthermore, if you ARE a chef, you don’t DARE do such a thing & make out like “the tool doesn’t matter” etc, which I hear all the time. If you aspire to be good, you get good gear and you use it. I realize my getting a DSLR didn’t make me a good photographer, but I sure as heck wouldn’t degrade the art of photography by pointing my camera phone at my subject matter, “zap” it with an Instagram action, and call that “photography.” Puh-leaze.

    And PS–I’m sorry, but quality DOES matter. If it doesn’t matter to you, then you don’t rate in the conversation frankly. Call me a snob or an “elitist,” so be it–but I APPLAUD those who stand up to this silliness & call it as it is.

  10. Dirk Singer

    A really excellent article Matthew. In response to the anti-Instagram lobby I’d make five points:

    1 – Instagram is the poster child of a much wider trend where consumers use more imagery in the content they share online. But it is only one example. There is a whole range of visual networks and sites that now exist, each with different purposes and catering to different audiences.

    So – don’t like what you see on Instagram? Then check out Tadaa. Another mobile photography network, if you are on the look out for quality, you’d probably find Tadaa more to your liking.

    2 – Is Instagram ruining photography? Depends on what you call photography.

    I’d argue that many people taking photos of the infamous lunches see Instagram as a visual life stream. The parallel here with Twitter is a good one. And really, if someone wants to take a picture of their sandwich, where’s the harm in that?

    3 – Because if it offends you, I’ve got a very simple solution. Social media is opt-in so all you need to is unfollow

    4 – I’m not even sure we’re comparing like with like, a point that’s been made already. I’m fully aware that a photographer with a professional camera will take pictures that are far, far better than mine.

    Where I have an advantage is in what you might call opportunistic photos. Again the parallel with Twitter fits, I can share what’s happening here and now – fast.

    5 – Ultimately, this is a trend moving in one direction only. According to Mintel, digital camera sales are down 29% over the past five years as smartphones become more people’s camera of choice

    So here’s a thought: Instead of seeing mobile photo enthusiasts as a threat or complaining about their use of filters, why not harness their enthusiasm and see it as an opportunity to get more people involved?

  11. NYT and The Awl covered this.

    Per NYT:

    “THESE kinds of pictures, arty and eminently “likable,” can be gratingly self-indulge”

    And The Awl:

    These are romantic and really somewhat infantile image techniques. They’re childish and nostalgic. They’re about sunny days and buzzing bees and reading books on a porch, and being oh so gently alienated.

  12. Kent Sievers

    Instagram is cool, I have no problem with it other than the glut of look-alike photos. It’s not ruining anything other than the occasional pic I think could be better without all the filtering. The difference between a pro and an amateur, is the ability to consistently see the possibilities, apply timing, intuition, composition, people skills and patients with such thorough knowledge of their equipment that great moments don’t go to waste. When I’m presented with an assignment, my brain quickly sorts the possibilities -wide angle, telephoto, depth of field, slow shutter or fast, add light or not and so on. There are endless ways to approach any given shoot and a real pro will make it look effortless while consistently delivering the goods.
    Kent Sievers

  13. Flux Research

    I actually don’t understand why people are getting so worked up. I guess they feel threatened.

    There’s a related theme I’ve seen lately where YouTubers that are making money are being referred to as amateurs without really clarifying what professional means. It all ends up seeming like a lot of word games from people who probably still have subscriptions to the print edition of The New Yorker. If there’s still a print edition.

  14. Notta Photog

    I think your analogies are completely off base. There is a big difference between a service that posts quick blurbs about your day (twitter) becoming a serious means of global communications and a site that takes a crap photo and applies crappy effects to that crappy photo.

    My feeling is that if people are constantly bombarded by the low quality photos and effects on sites like instagram, they begin to believe that the way they present those photos and effects is the “gold standard”. People will begin to lose appreciation for the real artistry of getting a vignette or sepia right (even if it IS digital!).

    And for the analogy between classical musicians and electric instruments, well, that was probably the worst of them all. Even with an electric instrument you have to have some sort of talent and thought for what you are doing. Regardless of what the cool punk kids will tell you. It’s more like the backlash against autotune and the ability to remove all talent from singing what so ever.

    To take this one step further, into blogging say, the blogging services don’t rewrite crappy copy or try to make a mundane topic interesting (what? No “make me Voltaire” filter?). Regardless of your spelling being impeccable, bad is bad. Unfortunately with photo services like instagram people are mistaking over processing of photos with artistry. They are looking beyond the interest of the actual subject because…oooo pretty colors…

    I wouldn’t say that instagram is the downfall of photography, because really I don’t see the service living as it is for an extended period of time. But I think it does have the unfortunate effect of bombarding people with uninteresting, over processed crap until they are SURE that it is art, leaving the true artists to whither into obscurity.

    It’s the Velveeta of photos.

  15. Interesting debate. But, for me, this is not at all about the merging of amateur and professional, about democratisation or barriers to access.
    It’s about this – photos produced using Instagram are essentially faked. They are the product of filters that retrogressively mimic decades-old camera defects. I think that’s naf, a little embarrassing, but fascinating.. Why are people taking pictures of their office or of conferences as though they were toting a Lomo? I suppose you have to have some joy in your life, but it’s a bit weird.
    The blog, as a medium, didn’t mimic its forebears in this way. It was a new form.
    I’m fascinated, though, by how dozens of old cameras have essentially been atomised in to a phone. Good luck with the comeback, Polaroid.

    • This should not be compared to journalism and bloggers. Bloggers and journalists are two different things. Some journalists blog, but writing online using other people’s work does not make one a journalist.

      And the impact of these photos is nothing compared to the issue when people start to think that bloggers produce “news”. That is having a negative impact on society.

  16. This reminds me of when the Mac made it possible for techie engineers to make their own presentation charts… with every font and style represented on one graphic. Eventually they got over the novelty, realized why they’d hired graphic designers, and appreciated us all the more. :)

  17. Sunny Yuen

    Petty ridiculous hearing backlashers of Today’s technologies that helped millions get across their message across. Maybe they odd to try living in the stone age where life is a laborious amount of work.

  18. Vitamin Devo

    I’m sorry an iPhone pic, looks Nothing like a picture with a 5D or any good DSLR for that matter, if so called “real” photographers are so afraid of the instgram revolution, then they should be, because people now more people had the photo bug, then ever before, Guess that means you better get your ass in gear and push your art, instead of complaining that theres MORE people out there doing the same thing… TRY HARDER. ( but seriously 1billion?, the app annoys the crap out of me, why can’t i use it online? stupid and annoying )

  19. wow, now they are sounding like the newspaper industry and the music industry after technology changed those business models. sorry, professional photographers just need to define and separate themselves from the rest of the group. everyone’s a photographer nowadays, deal with it i say. plus, we get more and more photographs that we’d never see if it weren’t for technology and social media. my usual .02 ;)

  20. ian mcclelland

    Clay Shirky discussed all this 10 years ago. All that’s happened is that the filter now comes after publishing, rather than before. This is part and parcel of being in the post Guttenberg world. If you don’t like pictures of sandwiches, just filter them out.

  21. Rob DeMillo

    Sorry, but unlike a lot of the “future of journalism” conversations, I do think the criticisms of Instagram are valid.

    In the case of journalism, blogging still requires work – it takes time to form coherent thoughts and commit them to the Internets. Sure, most blogs are over-biased, under-researched…but the cream rises to the top.

    In the case of Instagram, while it is fun, the same arguments used for journalism do not apply. Instragram degrades a photo (it reduces the resolution, crops it to a 4×3 shot, and applies the filters at the whim of the photographer) in just the click of a button. No thought, no personal editing.

    It is a phenomenon of the internet: just because its easy, doesn’t mean that it works. I’m happy for you that you can take a picture of your tuna sandwich, crop it, and make it look like a 1970’s polaroid, but it’s still a half eaten sandwich.

    If you want to prove it yourself, spend a mind-numbing 15 minutes thumbing through Instagram, and then go to a professional or amateur photography site. Pick a few, like Jason Bell’s site ( or The 37th Frame (

    If you want to see what real vignetting looks like and what is involved (as opposed to the push button variety Instragram uses) then check out

    Hell, even Flickr has better photography examples.

    Look, I have nothing against photosharing, or even filtering images, but Instragram is something else…it’s a photographic food processor that absolutely destroys the original image. My instagram “hate” comes from a $1B valuation for a company that not only doesn’t provide value, it subtracts it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob, but I think you’re missing the point — it isn’t about the quality of the photography at all, it’s about the ease with which photos can be taken and shared. If you focus on how it isn’t like professional photography you’re going to miss what’s interesting about it.

      • Rob DeMillo

        Thanks Mathew.

        Perhaps I didn’t express it clearly, but my point is that ease-of-use and photographic quality are quickly related by these services, and that relationship can either be healthy or unhealthy.

        I’m not saying I would expect Instagram images to be stacked up against professional (or pro-am, I want to stress) photographers, but that the “ease” of instagram contributes to the destruction of the underlying photo. And the vast user base contributing to this unending stream of consciousness does, I believe, devalue both professional and amateur photography to a large extent.

        Photo sharing sites don’t have to corrupt the image just to maintain ease of sharing – I threw Flickr out as an example of a site that maintains the original intent of the photographer. In the mobile space, a comparative example is the now-defunct PicPlz. (PicPlz hit the deadpool right after the Instagram acquisition… which I suspect was not coincidental timing.) Taking photos and sharing on PicPlz was just as easy as Instagram (I would argue that the PicPlz app was better than Instagram), and it also allowed for image filtering… but, the content was never corrupted. The filters did not distract from the shots, the composition window was maintained, and the image resolution was (to a certain size) maintained. As a result, it felt as though the PicPlz community took more pride in their photos than the Instagram community…all without destroying the easy point-and-shoot-and-share workflow.

        So, again – I understand the point you were trying to make, but I think in the case of Instagram, I think the backlash is probably deserved.

      • Jeff Putz

        I think you miss the point. Kate’s piece isn’t about the ease of sharing or taking photos, it’s about the hideous and uniform deformation of the photos.

        • Yes, I know — but I think that misses the larger point. In many cases, perhaps even most, the specific quality of the photo is irrelevant. It’s focusing on the trees instead of the forest. Thanks for the comment though.

    • Benjamin Rhau

      Like many critics of Instagram, you are taking the worst (and to be fair, common) examples of its use and presenting that as the only contribution of the medium. There is a huge artist community (of street photographers, in particular), who put a tremendous amount of thought and care into subtle edits, maintaining the camera’s native resolution, and not using the app’s native filters at all. The sharing, learning, and discovery made possible by the social nature of this app have uncovered and developed talent in a way that’s never happened before in photography. Is there also a lot of bad photography on Instagram? Of course. But there is a lot of new, pretty phenomenal art that was brought into this world because of the app. Instagram doesn’t “ruin photography,” just as Draw Something doesn’t “ruin” illustration art.

  22. ricphillips

    These applications and services (Not just Instagram) are not ruining photography they are ruining photographers.

    A picture is a picture. The value of aesthetic effects that were once scarce was based in part on their attractiveness to the viewer and their scarcity.

    The attractiveness hasn’t changed – just the scarcity. Photographic effects are no “less” for being easier.

    But as always people get all muddle headed when the boundaries of their world shifts and the categories in which they think don’t apply any more. Artistic value, economic value and cultural value are all a combination of various factors such as formal innovation (the effect of the new), accessibility, scarcity of process and skills, insight into the ‘human condition’, etc etc…

    Take cultural and economic scarcity out of the equation and the value of some photographic technique changes.

    Big whoop. Get over it.

    • Robin Deacle

      Ric, I think you make a great point. Times change and we have to adapt. I can also understand, as a former journalist, that it’s difficult to see skills and wisdom you’ve spent your life developing replaced by an app. I don’t think that’s something you just get over.

      Refocusing on curating this volume of content, now that would be adapting.


  23. André Felipe

    Remembering that those smugs also think they are “real” photographers when they buy their Canon 5Ds, or “real” filmmakers with their GoPro cams. People sharing photos via Instagram or videos on Youtube or thoughts on Tweeter are just having their time sharing stuff with friends.

  24. Matt Terenzio

    Doc Searls has said that the photo he would have picked for a print product is never the one that gets all of the attention online. I have no point but it’s an interesting fact.