THE BLOG

Is an Instagram Worth 1000 Words?

07/10/2013 10:49 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

Back in the nineteenth century, way before denim shorts and ray-bans and other things that define our modern era, people moved at a much slower pace. Everything was slower: meals, transportation, dumb-waiters, plumbing, Boolean search engines. There were no easy fixes, no Soda Streams back then -- if you wanted your water with bubbles you had to struggle for hours with a very complicated siphon contraption and then hope that you had magicked the right level of pressurization, not to mention trying to screw a cap on that explosive bottle of carbonated beverage!

Without much technological sophistication, this era also didn't have much in the way of recreational games. This was pre-Candy Crush and Candy Crush Saga. Imagine the great boredom that came with life back then. Sure, there was "reading" and euchre, but I've done both of those and still had time to spend an hour before bed scrolling through all my different iPhone apps.

And my favorite of these apps to pour over and fall asleep to is, of course, Instagram. This photo-sharing (and now, controversially, video-sharing) application has over 100 million users including some of the most stylish N.B.A. players currently in the league.

I am a regular Instagram user and I admit that I attract new followers with my particular brand of self-deprecating self-portraits and abstract photos of homemade tapas. I spend a good deal of time searching for people with my same interests or who are friends of famous people.

But, I have a lot of misgivings about the degree to which we've become so invested in these electronic pictures. Whether they are hard-g .gifs or soft-g .gifs, or .pngs, or even if you just save them as .pdfs -- what are they really but a false copy of something real? And can an image that takes a second to capture really be worth so many moments of our time?

In our effort to hurriedly post and apply the correct and most flattering filter to our photos, I'm concerned that we will lose the art of really observing. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady called photography a "great and truthful medium of history." He sat with his subjects for hours -- because that's apparently how slow cameras were then -- and also because to begin to understand people you need to stare at them for at least a good five minutes.

Taking a photograph of someone or something can be an exercise in empathy. By looking at a compelling photo, we can learn something about the subject -- something emotional, something intrinsic, something about a person that we wouldn't notice if we didn't take the time to really explore his countenance.

But so many Instagrams are gimmicks and thoughtless. Once, when I was in a bit of a fender-bender that my insurance company doesn't need to know about, I looked over my shoulder to find an uninvolved stranger taking a photo with a grin on his face. As if the idea of posting a picture of an unfortunate encounter (where no one was legally at fault!) was so enticing to him, he forgot that there were actual feeling humans involved. As if he didn't notice that I had real tears coming down my cheeks, that I was having an extraordinarily bad moment. That I could have used a pat on the back and a kombucha or something.

It's a lesson from the greatest man alive, Dustin Hoffman: We aren't truly considering all people to offer when we look at them too quickly, giving them just a once over. And our carelessness -- our failure to seek out this shared humanity -- costs us.

So much of the time we wonder why other people aren't being good to us, aren't returning our correspondence, are indifferent, or selfish, or won't make eye contact.

But perhaps instead we ought to wonder if we've made it too easy to be uninvested in our fellow human beings. In all our technological consumption, in all the ways we have attempted to make life easier and more time-efficient, we may have done some real harm to genuine human interaction.

With the advent of apps like Instagram, we've allowed ourselves to detach more, and to become passive observers. I don't think such detachment serves art or people well. I don't picture an artist as someone who stands in the corner, smirking to himself, dispassionate and disengaged from the scene. I do, however, picture an artist as someone who always wears a French beret and smokes one of those long fake cigarettes.

Instagram is a bold app, with lots of possibilities. Certainly, there are a lot of wonderful things about something Facebook valued at over $1 billion.

Yet, if Instagrammers want to take up the legacy of Brady, Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh and Annie Liebowitz, plus any others of the "great photographers" I googled, they'll have to slow down.