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A defense of Instagram
Instagram is easy to hate on. Go to any tourist attraction, or really any place, and there will be people there spending more time looking at a site through their phone than with their actual eyes. This is because of Instagram. Sure there are other apps out there, but Instagram is what all the cool kids are posting to. One of my greatest irritations right now is when people taking photos in a crowded, public place expect me to move out of their shot. Or worse yet, are annoyed with me when I walk between the camera operator and subject that are taking over an entire walkway. You’d think they were still using film cameras and I had just wasted one of their 36 shots. Just line up the shot and take the photos in a gap in traffic! Or don’t block an entire walkway for your photo. Blargh.
Then there is increasing evidence that Instagram is doing real harm to users’ mental health, specifically teenage girls. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 20 years ago people were concerned about the damage that “beauty magazines” were doing to young women. The idea was that the typical person would compare themselves to the glamorous models and celebrities (who, already part of the 0.01% of beauty, were then digitally edited), and feel inadequate. Now things are even worse. It isn’t the world-famous celebrity that puts the viewer to shame, but the frenemy from high school who is apparently traveling to exotic locations every month and eating out at fancy restaurants every weekend. Oh, and their relationships are all perfect. I firmly agree with the Surgeon General: social media is causing harm. And Instagram is the biggest culprit. Despite this, and the crowds of photo takers, I have to admit: Instagram has probably made my life better. Why? It has changed the economics of aesthetics.
For small, private businesses, aesthetics used to be an afterthought. Sure, every restaurant wanted to have clean bathrooms, and every coffee shop a few comfy places to sit. But most small businesses didn’t have a strong incentive to cultivate a specific look or atmosphere. The coffee shop was a place to get coffee. The deli was a place to get a sandwich. It wasn’t worth it to spend thousands on a brightly lit interior with healthy feng shui. A sandwich could just be some meat and cheese and veggies between two slices of bread delivered on a nondescript plate (if you were lucky).
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Instagram changed all that. For the first time, a small business could get free advertising by being photogenic. Whether it is a coffee shop, hotel, clothing boutique, or even apartment complex, people will take photos in a good spot and post them for their followers to see. For individuals who are trying to make it as influencers, every day needs to have a steady parade of content. It’s far easier to post updates when a shopping trip includes a nice backdrop. Businesses began to recognize this.
The result was a total overhaul in the aesthetics of small businesses. It didn’t happen all at once, and it was easy to miss the transition, but there is now a great deal of beauty all around us. This is easiest to notice when visiting a neighborhood you haven’t been to in some time. Shops are more inviting, murals are everywhere, and there’s an almost alarming amount of things hanging from ceilings. We’ve come a long way from the supposed “urban functional” look of Chipotle. Just look at this hipster deli in Denver with an equally hipster name - “Leven”:
Yes, it’s easy to make fun of. A deli called “Leven”, how deep! But guess what? The place was beautiful. Real work had gone into all the plants hanging from the ceilings and the geometric design on the walls. And the food was delicious (and expensive). This was a far cry from the delis I remember eating at as a kid, with the sticky tables and cold cuts.
This is perhaps best epitomized by the “Van Gogh Immersive Experience” that has toured the country. Patrons can pay a hefty ticket fee and walk around rooms that have Van Gogh’s work projected on massive walls. Is this how Van Gogh’s work was meant to be experienced? No. Are there people there who just want to take photos and won’t learn a single thing about art? Yes. But some people will learn about Van Gogh. Some will discover they enjoy classic art when it’s repackaged in a more dynamic, although arguably chintzy, manner. And for those that don’t, does it really matter? If someone has a good time and takes some cool photos and can’t tell you afterward who Van Gogh even was, so be it. They still had a positive experience and got to experience beauty in the world. And I have no doubt the Van Gogh experience would not be nearly as popular without Instagram.
I agree with C. Shaw Smith, an art professor whose take on the Van Gogh experience was this:
In the original works, what you’re really talking about is the hand. In this case, you’re talking about the eye. The immersive presentation is a way to create accessibility and the spectacle. It has very little to do with the art itself. The simulation animates his paintings, too; you can see his famous sunflowers grow, so it plays with things that are well beyond the scope of the painting. A purist would say that’s bad. One side of me agrees. On the other side, I see it as popularizing.
In neighborhoods around the world, beautification is happening. In summer 2022, I visited Prague and walked around the neighborhood I lived in in 2010 when I studied abroad. I could not believe the change. There were still little shops, counter spots, restaurants, and bars, but gone were the fluorescent lights and soulless cases of food. Instead, there was natural lighting, decorations, and even seats with backs. One place even had Edison lights and pillows in the corners! This was a new Prague for sure.
So yes, Instagram, like many innovations, will not be all good. People will attempt to take over an entire seaside boardwalk to take a good photo (it’s 1PM on a sunny Saturday, did you expect to have the place to yourself?!). We need to teach children that Instagram is not reality. But we can also enjoy the cozy cafe and delicious bagel sandwich you can now get in Driggs, Idaho - population 1,660.