Why I really, really hate Instagram

Update 2012-01-09: OMG you guys, stop linking to this already! The new versions of Instagram save the un-filtered versions by default, and the new filters are in any case a lot more subtle than the first version. Instagram no longer destroys data, so I no longer hate it. Please stop sending me flame emails.

I love data, so I really hate Instagram.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say I really hate the users of Instagram, for what they do to their photos; Instagram is merely the enabler. The behaviour I take issue with isn't even the default behaviour of the app. But I'm uncomfortable applying such a strong word to such a large group of people who are mostly just trying to be cute and aren't considering the larger consequences of their collective action. So instead I hate Instagram, for enabling the senseless destruction of data contained in these photos.

Consider the digital camera on a mobile phone. Even on high-end mobile phones, it is already a pathetically inaccurate instrument. Even a moderate-quality film camera has a resolution of between 12 and 20 megapixels. The iPhone 4 has 5 megapixels on the rear camera, and high-end Android phones like the EVO 4G go as high as 8.

As a society, we have already made a collective sacrifice in photo quality in the name of quantity and convenience. There was a dark period in the late 90s when average photo quality plummeted from the 20 megapixels of film to pathetic VGA, 640x480 (0.3MP) photos. But it climbed, and now your average point-and-shoot has 12MP, roughly film quality. But in the meantime we sacrificed quality again, this time in the name of portability, and we rely mostly on the cameras in our phones.

With these rubbish phone cameras we take terrible photos of some of our most important moments and cherished memories. I am not complaining about composition and lighting here; I'm not a photographer. I am talking about the quantity of meaningful visual data contained in these files. Future historians will decry forever the appalling lack of visual fidelity in the historical record of the last decade.

Enter Instagram

The mobile app Instagram is -- though this intentionally non-obvious to users -- at heart a social networking play. It's drop-dead simple, it connects you to your friends, and it provides a way of sharing content with your friends that keeps you coming back to the app. It is brilliant. It's slickly built, cleverly marketed, and a masterpiece of usability and clean, get-out-of-the-way design.

The ultimate triumph of its subtly minimalist design is that users get involved without realizing this is what it is. Instead, what most users think of it as is "that way to take cute photos that look like a polaroid from the 1970s". That's what the icon looks like, that's what the name says, and that's the feature it has over all other camera apps: it has a set of filters that can make your otherwise standard cellphone photo look like it was shot with one of a variety of vintage cameras. Again, brilliant.

But also terrible. Think about what these filters are doing: they're taking the already horribly limited amount of visual data contained in a cellphone snapshot and destroying it. If you take a photo with a filter, your original photo -- the one with all the data you originally captured -- is lost. Instead, what is sent to your friends and saved to your photo library is a copy of the photo where a layer of junk has been applied. Colours are washed out, contrast destroyed, borders are cropped, blurs and scratches applied. The meaningful, unique information in those pixels is gone forever, replaced with cloned copies of the bits in the filter file. You are fucking up your photo.

I don't care how terrible your cellphone camera is. I don't care if the shot was already blurry, or badly lit. However bad it was, you have just made it worse. And the worst part is why people do this: because they want that "vintage" look.

Why the fuck do you need your digital photos to look vintage? You are not decorating the set of some 1970s version of Mad Men. You are not fooling anybody into thinking you are taking polaroids and scanning them before uploading them to twitter. People take these fucking faux-vintage shots of current events, things that happened five minutes ago. They add filters to screenshots of their mobile operating system, as if they have some cherished memory from 10 years before they were born of using a mobile operating system that wasn't invented until 40 years after that.

The reason they do this is because of faux-nostalgia. People, and in particular brand marketers, have associated good times with the past, and "vintage" things -- wine, clothes, cars -- with higher quality. So if your photo looks vintage, thanks to the collective marketing efforts of five or six different industries all trying to sell you old shit at 10x its production cost, you feel it looks like a better photo. There's also artificially altered expectations: it may be a terrible cellphone picture but it's great for a polaroid.

I have had enough. Stop fucking up your photos. You know what's going to look actually vintage? The original photo. Go back in your hard drive and look at photos you took with your cellphone 5 years ago. They already look ancient, with their 800x600 resolution. In 5 years your 5-megapixel iPhone 4 shots are going to look just as hokey. You do not need to fuck with these photos to make them look old. You do not need to dip them in artificial 70s-dust to add nostalgic charm to them.

These are already the best photos you'll ever take. They are taken in the moment, of spontaneous laughter and stupid adventures, of your best friends at high school and at college and afterwards. They record good times and solemn occasions, nights out and birthday parties and great meals and first dates. It doesn't matter if they're blurry or dark or out of focus. In forty years' time you're going to look back at these photos and love them no matter what. And you'll wonder why the fuck you thought wrapping a white border and splashing a pink blob over them was a good idea.

It breaks my data-loving heart. So much is going to happen to these photos. Hard drive crashes, virus infections, lost laptops, accidental deletions, misplaced files. It's going to be really hard for them to survive the next three decades. Why destroy them before they even start on their journey?

Stop deliberately destroying your own memories. Stop using the filters on Instagram.

If you like citation-free rants like this one you should follow me on Twitter here.

Update: Multiple people have pointed out that you can set Instagram to save a copy of the original photo. As I point out right at the beginning, this is not a problem with Instagram by itself, but with the users of Instagram, and Instagram as the enabler. (However, saving the original photo untouched in not the default setting)