How Instagram Works

Taking Photos: To filter, or not to filter?

While the point-and-click nature of a smartphone's camera is a huge part of Instagram's popularity, there are also some built-in attractions that give it that extra appeal. Some of the filters have even become clichés, since they're so appealing that people use them obsessively. Others are more passive, and simply enhance the photos you're taking. There have always been "special effects" available for digital photographs, but Instagram takes these to a whole level.

Now, it's become something of a good-natured joke about Instagram users and those filters that everybody thinks they're an artist the second they download the app, but there's a little truth behind it -- and regardless, everybody's doing it anyway. The thing to remember is that part of living in a post-analog world is that the effects of analog production still contain meaning.

What does that mean? Well, think about the scratchy sound of a vinyl record -- or the faded photographs in your parents' old photo albums. Those effects are artifacts of the way those things were physically produced, but they're also part of the way we experience them. Those State Fair pictures where you put on a fancy hat and pretend to be in the "olden days" -- they're invariably in a sepia tone, right? You'd look pretty silly, wouldn't you, if those photos were digital and perfect? Or what about the "lens flare" effect in movies like Star Trek?

They're effects that mean something other -- something more -- than simply being physical remnants of a physical process. It's the same thing with Instagram: Adding a photo-aging filter, or a crazy light effect, is simply adding to the language of the photo, it's another dimension of the memory you're capturing. A sunny day at the beach has power for you, because it's your memory that's preserved: But smart use of a filter on that picture can help evoke the same feelings in another person who sees the picture, even though they weren't there.