In a milestone for the photo-sharing platform, Instagram hit 150 million users a couple of weeks ago, 50 million of which joined in the last six months. The social platform’s co-founder Kevin Systrom explains, "Instagram has changed the way people see the world" and has become "a common element of life."
And like all common elements of life, sometimes we forget how special they are.
I’ve been an Instagram user for over two years. I was enthralled with the platform when I first discovered it. I was able to see beautiful photographs from perspectives so far removed from what I see in my everyday life. I felt invigorated, and my curiosity lit fire.
The more I used the photo-sharing app, however, that initial, intense connection that it provided me began to fade. Over time, I deflated the deeper I scrolled my feed. No matter how “perfect” the filter looked, no matter how beautiful the moment that the photo captured, it suddenly all seemed inauthentic. I felt removed from the faces and places I saw. Mind you, this was not because of a “stale” feed; I followed new people, saw new photos.
But it was all the same.
This feeling of mine seemed ironic upon discovering that 60% of Instagram’s 150 million users live outside the United States. One might think that I would feel more connected with the global access that Instagram offered.
I remained puzzled until this moment: the moment when I fell in love with Instagram again.
When not working with SyneCore Tech, I am also a writing consultant in the Center for Writing at the University of St. Thomas. As a consultant, we work with international students on their English-speaking skills. This past Sunday, I was working with an Arabic-speaking student who had only begun intensive English language classes two weeks prior.
Our conversation was strained at first. Both of our nerves were lying honestly on the table in front of us. I began asking him questions about his life back in Saudi Arabia and about his transition to America. He was hesitant in his answers, and I was beginning to dig for ways to connect with him. As I was trying, unsuccessfully, to explain what the word “favorite” meant, he grabbed his iPhone to translate the word to Arabic – a desperate attempt to put us both at ease. Suddenly the glow of understanding lit his face. I instantly felt calmed, too, as he continued to answer my question.
I asked the student about his family and how he communicated with them back home. He rattled off phone calls and Skype, but then he mentioned Tango.
“Oh gosh, I’ve never heard of that! Tell me more about that.”
Excited to be teaching the American something, he turned to his iPhone and opened the app. It’s rather funny, isn’t it? Although we speak two different languages, we both understand the Apple language. Recognizing this shared language, I asked him to tell me more about some of his favorite apps. He began taking me on a tour of his digital life and soon stopped on Instagram, turning to me with a casual look of joy.
“I love Instagram,” he told me.
I looked him in the eyes.
“I do, too,” I responded, somewhat lying. I didn’t care. I wanted desperately to find common ground.
He smiled, sharing in my excitement.
Before he started showing me his pictures, he handed the phone to me and gestured to type in my username. I showed him my profile and introduced the faces he saw and the moments that lead to the photos. Traces of disbelief fluttered across his face. I was puzzled but intrigued by this look.
He took me through his photos, which were filled with family, friends and favorite memories from home. Suddenly, his English was much smoother and more confident as he narrated this snapshot of his life. I saw his brothers take to the sea on jet skis. I saw his father, a man obviously respected and admired by his son. As I listened to him show me what mattered most to him, I began to understand that flutter of disbelief I saw on his face when he looked at my profile. Here we are – two people struggling to understand each other but within seconds of opening Instagram, we are able to see into one another’s lives through Walden and Valencia filters.
How simple. How powerful. How beautiful.
That’s it; I’d fallen in love once again.
For days, I wondered why this moment had been so special. I played with it; let it mill about it my head as I pleaded for some clarity.
And then it hit me.
Storytelling. Had I stumbled upon this student’s Instagram feed, alone in my apartment, I would have moved on in a matter of minutes. I didn’t have any context for these photos; he was a man a world away from me. But that changed when he was a real person, sitting in front of me, sharing his life and perspective with me. While he struggled to communicate with me prior to opening Instagram, the photos in his profile sparked storytelling, bringing life into his words.
Perhaps my position is not a unique one; it is obvious that the social platform is continuing to grow and our culture still has an intense fascination with it. News outlets such as ABC question the “proud parent” and the obsession with over-sharing photos of their kids. NASA recently launched an account to give us “earthlings” a glimpse into the world beyond. And R29 tells us why Amanda Seyfried has the best celebrity account. Like Systrom said, Instagram is "a common element of life."
I am proposing, however, that to continue to find joy in Instagram, we need to find a balance. Despite its ability to overcome spatial distance, Instagram doesn’t substitute connection. Conversations with the people in front of you provide more fulfillment and value than scrolling through a feed, catching glimpses of perhaps authentic, perhaps constructed moments. But, combine them together to tell a story and wow – that’s magic.
So, thank you to the Saudi Arabian man that helped me find joy in one of the “common elements of life.”