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Why is Instagram so popular?

Zohra Ashpari | April 9, 2012
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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

 

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