Why is everyone snapping pictures of their lunches? A critical analysis of the Instagram social media phenomenon

First, there was Myspace with its alluring, vast world of friend-to-friend interaction made possible and convenient through a constant stream of comments, messages, and photos. Then, Facebook emerged, shaking up the technological world with a sleeker, faster way to communicate with virtually anyone around the world through a medium of status updates, birthday messages, chatroom options, public and private groups, fanpages, and even geographical location notifications.

Now, we have Instagram.

What started out as an app available through the iPhone has now become a household term thanks to its availability through Android users. Today, millions of users use this new branch of social media to express themselves through cell-phone snapshots.

Less talking, more picture-taking.

So, what’s the draw? Pictures of lunch platters, pictures of a single cup of beer, pictures of the weather forecast, pictures of a popular meme? When photos were first available to upload online and share, we used these resources to send photographs of ourselves to our loved ones.

Now, we take pictures of our plate of tacos.

A quick Google search displays thousands of websites and tools available for photo-sharing and uploading. Yet, Instagram remains stubbornly popular, most likely due to its simplicity and attractiveness. There is no cost, no need to attach USB cords or camera plugs, no long-waiting period, and photos can be instantly uploaded to a host of other social networks. Moreover, Instagram offers retro filters, which indeed make it possible for anyone to appear “Photoshop” pretty. And, let’s face it. The unadulterated art of expression manifested around the same time our human species evolved. Just think of those ancient hieroglyphics and caveman drawings! Expression separates us individuals; it is the embellishment that creates individualization, the very element that distinguishes the core of “who we are.” Similar to the shiny, white, untouched paper before the author has scribbled his first word or the nondescript piece of wood before the sculptor has sharpened her tool, Instagram embodies yet another blank slate designed for the throes of creativity, allowing us to mold ourselves into whatever personality we wish to depict.

Things are arbitrary. A can of Coke has no significance on its own; however, when we give attention to it, we attach a powerful meaning to its image. Taking a picture of this item gives it worth; it has now become a memory, a part of our ever-evolving process of individualization.

Social media represents a highly powerful tool, in that we can recreate and present ourselves in whichever way we please. What goes through our minds when we choose a particular element of our day to capture and upload and share for the world to see? Do we want to express a particular emotion? When we feel grateful for our significant other, do we post a picture of the bouquet of roses he surprised us with? When we are experiencing bliss and serenity, do we capture the memory by uploading a picture of the beach or sunset? Yes of course. Users take these photos to make the mundane more significant. Instead of passing around bulky photo albums, we scroll through our phones, indicating the pictures we like by simply “double-tapping” and initiating conversation by providing comments. Likewise, users can choose to “hashtag” their photos using the # symbol. For example, a photo depicting a couple holding hands may feature #lovehim or #sohappy. When a user clicks on these hyperlinked texts, he or she is taken to a lumped group of the same hashtag, making it easy to browse through a particular theme or trend. This is yet another way to provide a sense of belongingness.

So, why does this seemingly simple and unoriginal application generate so much popularity? The rise of smartphones, for one. As technology rapidly advances, more people are choosing to use their phones as a means of doing essentially everything, from banking to emailing to web-browsing to playing games and, yes, to taking and sending pictures. For another, people have argued that Facebook and Twitter just promote arrogance, with people bragging about their achievements or exaggerating their lives. While pictures also hold the ability to shed one’s life in a positive manner are more indirect. Rather than boasting about an awesome view during a hike, one can just capture a photo of it and let the commentary and public opinion unravel. Finally, we live in a society that thrives on basic, fast-paced learning. Since the written word materialized, we have been arguing whether we learn and process information better when it is visually presented to us. While Instagram does not answer that question, it does indicate that perhaps we do find visual information extremely appealing.