Siting In Stagram was produced in early February 2015. I reposted the same image over and over to Instagram to see what happened. I then bundled it up into a video which I also posted to Instagram:
I submitted it to the art blog Prosthetic Knowledge for consideration and he featured it. A few days later it went “viral”, appearing on news sites and content farms all over the world. I was able to track 950,000 views based on the video some of the sites embedded though this could only be a fraction of the total. I have had lots of feedback and questions and as such have spent the last couple of months thinking a lot about this silly little artwork I made when bored with a head cold one February night. This post attempts to gather those thoughts so they might be used for future enquiry.
Attrition is something that fascinates me. I see this as distinct from simply entropy, where something degrades on its own, as it implies the slow, steady action of an external force. Rocks do not become pebbles on their own – the attrition of the sea causes that transformation over centuries, one wave at a time. A step in an old church is work into a curve over centuries, one step at a time. Each step brushes off a layer of atoms to no visible effect, but in aggregate a significant change occurs.
This is evidence of activity, and it’s most interesting when it’s human activity. A seat worn by bottoms, a library book worn by readers, street cobbles worn by vehicles, vinyl records worn by playing. This attrition is all around us and is a way of measuring popularity. The worn seat probably has the best view. The worn library book is the most useful. Your favourite record is the one that sounds the worst. And so on.
Before the digital media era copying was inherently lossy, in that each copy threw away a small amount of data. Photocopiers were the best example of this. Every office would have a faded, almost illegible photocopy of some cartoon or joke, the original of which was lost in time. See also tape-to-tape, VHS, chemical photography, screen printing – each copy, while perfectly acceptable, was slightly inferior to the original. Something, however small, had been lost.
Digital copies are supposed to be lossless, and when done from person to person they mostly are. Files sent by email, shared over BitTorrent or copied on a USB stick are, byte for byte, identical.
But media that is socially shared over services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is not copied in a lossless way. A photo uploaded to one of these services is optimised for delivery across that platform, usually using the JPEG compression algorithm, to reduce its dimensions and file size. JPEG is a lossy format in that it throws away unnecessary information. Most of the time this is not a problem, and the JPEG format is ultimately a wonderful thing, but like the waves on the beach, each copy throws something away and over time the changes to the image move from invisible to subtle to blatant. The same applies to mp3/aac for music and mpeg for video – they are analogous to cassette tapes and VHS video.
This distinction between making a lossless copy and sharing a lossy copy over a service is important. The latter is mediated, and that mediation introduces imperfections. That is what I’m exploring here.
When I decided to use Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room as my framework it wasn’t a serious choice, but on reflection I think I can massage it into making sense. Lucier wasn’t so much interested in the technical phenomena of media degradation. He was interested in how this mechanical process could tell us something about the room itself.
Social spaces on the internet are analogous to “rooms” as they are containers for human activity and artefacts. This work is on Instagram but it is also about Instagram in a similar way to how Lucier’s work in about that specific room, and hopefully can be used to understand some general things about our online social spaces.
Instagram is a division of Facebook, one of the largest companies in the world. This is important and there are many things that can be said about Instagram as a company, but this work does not directly deal with them.
What is interesting about Instagram to me, as a photographer, is how the platform is based entirely around photographs (and short videos, but those are effectively moving photographs). What text there is on Instagram is in service to the image, and as such the language of Instagram is visual. People are using it to communicate using images and developing dialects and slangs in that medium. This is massively interesting for a photographer.
But Instagram is also a mediating force. There are restrictions on what can be posted and how it is seen. Your photo has to be cropped to a square and will be rendered at the relatively low resolution of 640 pixels wide. Your stream of photos, by those you follow, can also only be seen on a smartphone or tablet, meaning the image is usually seen in the palm of someone’s hand, not on a large monitor. These restrictions are not bad, per se, but they do motivate creativity in how people use that service. If you want to communicate something specific you have to understand and work with Instagram’s limitations. This is what I mean by mediated.
Most online social platforms have a method for sharing media within them. Twitter has the retweet, Facebook the share, Tumblr the reblog. These function to take someone else’s content and insert it into your personal stream. Instagram does not have this functionality, which makes sense as Instagram is about showing your own photos, not other people’s. But the usage of Instagram’s platform has spread outside this narrow limitation and there is a subculture of “regramming” on the service where people post copies of images found on other people’s streams. These images are usually image macro memes with captions which quickly communicate a message or idea and are a common way of group-bonding online. They also serve as a call to action, soliciting comments and faves from followers.
I became interested in regramming through my rabbits’ Instagram account which follows a hundreds of other rabbit accounts, many of which are run by teenage girls. This gives me a rare glimpse into how teenagers use images to communicate, something not usually afforded to a 40-something childless man. One meme in particular caught my attention – the “Which One Am I?” macro, where girls ask their followers to put them in a category. I’ve been collecting them for a few months and have them online here.
These memes are spread through taking a screen capture (on the iPhone this is done by holding the Home and Power buttons down together til the screen flashes) and posting this screen capture as a new image. The process of doing so introduces compression artefacts which, along with inaccurate cropping, mean that each regram is of a lower quality than its original.
Brian Feldman named these low quality images in his now-seminal article The Triumphant Rise of the Shitpic. Some quotes:
“Shitpics happen when an image is put through some diabolical combination of uploading, screencapping, filtering, cropping, and reuploading. They are particularly popular on Instagram.”
“Perhaps most importantly, the Shitpic aesthetic could very well be the first non-numeric indicator of viral dissemination.”
“If you look at a Shitpic, you can instantly tell the level of virality by how worn it looks, how legible its text is, how many watermarks adorn it. You can count them much like you would rings on a tree. A pristine-looking meme engenders skepticism – “This can’t be that funny, it hasn’t been imperfectly replicated enough.” But when you see that blurry text, partially cut off by the top of the frame, and a heavily compressed picture… that’s when you know: This is gonna be a good-ass meme.”
The shitpic is fascinating not just on a technical level. It is a surprisingly fertile window into how digital images exist online to spread ideas and develop cultural norms.