Will Video Kill the Instagram Star?

Are motion picture Instagrams better than still ones? I highly doubt it.
Media specificity lies at the core of my research focus. I have long been interested in thinking about how audiences and publics, both past and present, make meaning of the same represented persons/objects/things from diverse representational modes.  Bringing critical awareness to these means of representation is deeply embedded within traditions of modern and contemporary art. Artists, ranging from Manet and the Impressionists, to Magritte and the Surrealists, through to conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, have made it part of their practice to bring insight to both the illusion and multiple media modes of our visual landscape.

Manet, Magritte, and Kosuth push audiences to think about the means of representation
and media forms as sets of shifting signs. Modern and contemporary art teaches us for example that a painting
is not a mimetic copy of reality, any more than a photograph or a convinving line of text.

Asking students to think critically about the means of representation is also part of the art historian’s job. Here, the basics of formal analysis kick into play. For example, what are the benefits and drawbacks of producing a representation of the same thing as a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, or a work of film or performance art? What is at stake in the conversations they will generate? What meanings will be made with each media mode? What is gained and what is lost? When Instagram announced its introduction to video captures this past week, I immediately began to wonder what false assumptions were being made about the move from still to moving pictures. Clearly, from watching the promotional video, there is an idea in place that the moving image is the natural evolution from the still Instagram picture. But is this really the case?


In the past several months, I have been thinking a great deal about these sorts of new media assumptions, and especially the move from silent to sound filmmaking and the many difficulties and limitations that were placed on experimental filmmakers of the late 1920’s who simply did not buy into the idea that sound was somehow “better” than silent film. To be sure, the entire history of film was transformed in a few short years when studio executives in Hollywood endorsed and promoted sound film (and narrative based movies) as the obvious evolution in filmmaking and then later colour filmmaking to replace black and white movies. What was lost with those transitions was how the means of filmic representation shifted and recast the way artists engaged with and/or abandoned film as a medium of choice. This is now part of a largely forgotten or misrepresented history we are just coming to grips with.

Claims for new media evolution and superiority have been made as far back as the early 20th century.
Here is an ad from 1918 in the trade journal Moving Picture World making the argument for a new film format. 
Looking to the immediate and largely negative reaction to the Instagram announcement by both average users and critics alike, I am reminded of archival documents I have recently looked at from the early 1930’s where the public laments all of the important aspects of silent film that would be lost in its transition to sound. More importantly, the underlying charge of that time was how “artistic” decisions had been made at the expense of commercial interests. This sentiment echoes many of the reactions about Instagram’s move (recently acquired by Facebook) and the mini commercial spots that are surely coming to Instagram within short order. Interestingly, most critics unanimously agree that moving to video signals a backward move for Instagram and not a natural evolution for the new media form. As New York Times writer Jenna Wortham argues in her article on the topic, media specificity has all but been disregarded with the transition to moving images:

Instagram is a yearbook of our most memorable moments, not because they’re the moments worth remembering, but because they’re the moments worth projecting and sharing… Video, at least the amateurish footage I shot, is the antithesis of that fantasy. And as much as I think we’re getting more comfortable being ourselves online, there’s still a difference between the self you’re willing to share publicly and the self you’re willing to share when only a handful of people are watching.

So will video kill the Instagram star? Probably not, but I can't help but wonder as new media forms continue to shift and claim “evolution” how long it will take for critiques like these to recede into forgotten history.

Further Reading:

Swisher, Kara “The Money Shot” Vanity Fair, June 2013

Van Loon, Joost Media Technologies: Critical Perspectives. Open University Press, 2008.