I know a person that takes a rigorous approach to social media: Whenever he posts a status, he tries to mention as many people as possible in the comments to get their attention. He has also been known to call others with the request to “please like my post” — and to delete it in case it bombs. Such obsession is obviously an extreme, but that underlying fear of being overheard is very real.
Last week, as Instagram first copied and then apparently replicated the success of Snapchat, I heard several people making a certain argument to explain the move: Sharing, they said, has become too much of a high-stakes game. People no longer dare to just casually post—for fear of falling on dead ears.
And it’s true: As networks like Facebook and Instagram have matured, they have gone through a transformation: Away from a democratic directory and towards an online celebrity death match, a space where the best, most engaging “content producers” dominate.
Much of that has to do with networks’ switch from linear timelines to algorithmic feeds: Now content had to perform well, or it would be mercilessly washed away with the next wave of updates, relegated to the bottom of an endless feed. Snapchat’s Stories had become an antidote to all that that: A space largely without rules where everybody could just happily share everything and anything, a place where users have a more tightly selected group of actual friends, and where they weren’t dealing with the anxiety of appearing too casual or oversharing
Just compare the visual language of regular Instagram with that of Snapchat: On the latter, posts aren’t just raw but often deliberately silly. I long found its stickers, lenses, and quickly drawn annotations visually jarring, but I failed to register that this was exactly what made them a success: They show that you aren’t taking yourself too seriously — they say “casual” with the same fervor as a tacky Hawaiian shirt.
Over the years, the photos people shared on Instagram went from badly-lit cellphone shots with cheesy filters towards perfectly symmetric, pastel-colored lifestyle dioramas. The app is still one of the most popular in the world, but users have stopped sharing as frequently, putting pressure on the company to make a move that would boost engagement.
Enter Stories: They are essentially a network with the network, a small space for ephemeral moments that gracefully vanish after 24 hours, keeping each users grid of photos intact. Want to have your cake and eat it too? Effectively, you now can.
Writer Geoff Dyer has called the quest of photography the “constant moment”, and that term has never seemed more appropriate than it does today: Photography has moved from static images towards a perpetual broadcast, where larger and larger chunks of life are becoming footage.
The constant moment is also the battleground of social networks, and advertisers, an ever-growing space to compete for eyeballs and to milk for revenue. Is it going to work? To me, Stories still appear as a curiosity. For one, they shatter the illusion so carefully crafted by people over the years; having shared just their very best moments and shots, the people I follow on Instagram have seemed to live lives full of wonder and amazement.
But their Stories are an endless stream of normalcy, of uncensored, often mundane everyday moments. And while there can undoubtedly be beauty in the mundane, these moments are so different to what I am used to seeing that watching them feels like stealing glances at strangers on the street. That effect will surely wear off.
But as it does, I’ll wonder if we’ll tired of the mundane as we do of the perfectly curated? Since Instagram Stories are a copy, they don’t tread on new territory. And the real question here is what app will make the next step in broadcasting the constant moment.