Commentary: How Instagram Breaks Social Media’s Mold

Valley News Correspondent
Monday, February 12, 2018

I’m not a Luddite, but I’ve taken a dim view of the advent and popularity of social media.

We carelessly and recklessly opened up a digital Pandora’s Box without much thought for the consequences. Social media could as readily be termed anti-social media, since the comments on such sites as Facebook and Twitter devolve rapidly into posturing and name-calling.

Consider also the grandiose claims that entrepreneurs have made for social media as engines for social good while downplaying the ease with which these platforms have been usurped for malign political purposes, propaganda and hate speech.

And how can we disregard the harvesting of personal data for monetary and political gain? These arguments have been made before by writers more attuned than I am to social media’s uses and abuses.

There is a valuable role for social media when bringing widespread attention to a particular cause. But they also encourage narcissism in a culture that has already rolled over and cried Uncle where celebrity is concerned. Social media have paved the way for the monetization of the self, which is a perversion, or perhaps the logical outcome of this country’s emphasis on individual liberty over a unifying social contract.

But, my knee-jerk antipathy toward social media has softened since I began using Instagram last summer. I was skeptical at first. I ventured down a few rabbit holes that led to Instagram accounts of preening self-regard.

Some Instagrammers depict themselves as if they were posing in the pages of Vogue or Condé Nast Traveler, where wealth, discernment, good taste and good looks are routinely on display. Such photographs demand of you admiration and envy without actually inviting you in; indeed, they bar the door.

But there is a sunnier, more optimistic side to Instagram, one that lives up to the promise of social media to unite people. My interests are thoroughly predictable. Dogs, birds, plants, wildlife, landscapes, art, architecture and photography. I am hardly alone.

As the wrangler of two boisterous hounds, I stumbled onto a subculture of beagle owners, “Beagles of Instagram.”

The pictures are sweet, goofy and comical — beagles napping, eating, playing, stealing toys — but what surprised me was that my interest was piqued as much by the snippets of life I could see in the background as by the dogs themselves.

The commonalities among us are far greater than the perceived differences. That Instagram is geared more toward photography than commentary also saves it from the tit-for-tat nature of Twitter or Facebook.

Humans the world over are awed by natural beauty, by sunrises and sunsets, rivers and oceans, and the interplay of shadow and light. They are amused and delighted by the antics of their pets, and they respond to scenes and people that are comical and eccentric. Not everyone on social media is selling a product or themselves. Our interests are eclectic and far-flung, and so particular, whether that is documenting how geckos hatch from eggs, cataloguing abandoned cars or climbing glaciers.

In the leapfrogging way of Instagram — one photo of a wading bird on the West Coast leads to a photo of a wading bird in the Netherlands — these initial forays led me to photographers as far away as China and as close to home as Canada.

I now follow photographers in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, the U.K., Russia, Spain, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, Canada and Israel.

If you want to see photos by Joel Meyerowitz, Lorna Simpson, Cindy Sherman or Sally Mann you can find them on their Instagram accounts. Or if you’re interested in aspects of American rural life that aren’t typically shown in the national media, there’s an Instagram account for it.

It’s not too great an imaginative leap from Instagram’s flora and fauna to the human animal, seen in its infinite variety and behaviors. We humans insist that we’re exceptional, a breed apart, but the semi-anthropological nature of Instagram, with its cross-sections and subcultures, reveals that we’re not as far removed from the worlds of insects, plants or birds as we would believe.

Instagram is certainly not a panacea for what ails us. It won’t substitute for the hard work of withholding judgment, listening and reconciling. But there are enough grace notes, enough lovely human moments on Instagram to redeem, even if fleetingly, a corrosive public culture.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.