A video feature on Instagram is now available. But what, exactly, does this mean for us?
When I was 18 I told my best friend I loved him for the first time. We'd been friends since kindergarten and we were just starting college together in a city neither of us had lived in before.
One of the boyish pleasures of our 13-year friendship came from simultaneously encouraging and ridiculing one another for our variously superficial personas—a surfer one year, a guitar player the next, a teen poet the year after—and how each new identity was more incongruous than the last.
In the same way that advertisements are platforms for making a person think there is something nobly poetic about their purchasing decisions, Instagram transforms self-surveillance into a form of intimate validation.
As I built the courage to articulate how much he'd come to mean to me after all that time, I felt the awkward self-awareness one feels when formalizing humorless truths into weighty declarations. And so I stumbled around a sentence that didn't seem to have an elegant way to be composed, knowing that the meaning of that moment would depend on how he reacted.
When Facebook announced yesterday that it was introducing video-sharing on Instagram, it was this moment that immediately came to mind. It would have fit neatly into a 15-second clip. The horribleness of a college dormitory room combined with the delicacy of emotional awkwardness would have made an ideal little scrap of comedy for social media.
Yet, knowing there was no third party intermediary to give meaning to the exchange deepened its intensity and intimacy. It was impossible to perform for anyone other than my friend and myself in that moment.
Like every variant that can be amassed under the banner of social media, Instagram is primarily in the syphoning business: It subtly redirects the energy of intimate exchanges. Instead of intimacy, social media favors maximal transmissibility across a vast network of strangers who riffle through each other’s leftovers.
In some ways, those fragments become indistinguishable from advertisements because of each platform’s limitations—140 characters, 6 seconds, 15 seconds—all of which force us to think like copywriters, reducing the complexity of our lives to burnished slogans and psychoanalytic micro-gestures.
It's not so much that we're selling ourselves as the product as we are translating experience and memory into units of exchange. This pays for our access to a community that sends ripples of closeness and friendship back to us with each server ping. The pictures are the buy-in and the feelings of intimacy are the goods being sold. This structure inverts the function of physical friendship, in which one person seeks another out for a specifically intimate reason.
Instead, Instagram turns the experience of friendship into a passive act by which poetically generalized mementos from day-to-day life wait for their circuit of meaning to be completed when some unforeseen confidant on the other end of the server plucks them out of the flow. Just as the bewilderment of Grand Central Station abates the instant a familiar face emerges from the chaos, Instagram’s chaotic whole is neutralized with every liked photo.
Instagram's expansion to 15-second video clips only reinforces this structure of discovering tiny little touches of unexpected affection by undercutting the compositional control slightly. As Bianca Bosker argues in The Huffington Post, video is "harder to fake, pose and perfect; it captures not just an instant, but a period in time." You might be able to fake a cool stance in a photo, but you're that much closer to being your transparent, dopey self in video, and this charges each potential like with the potential for even greater intimacy. This person likes me not just for the perfected artifice of a still-life but for the full-motion, full-awkward me.
The experience of being appreciated for being yourself is as pure a distillation of friendship as there is, and that is ultimately what Instagram is in the business of providing. In the same way that advertisements are platforms for making a person think there is something nobly poetic about their purchasing decisions, Instagram transforms self-surveillance into a form of intimate validation.
And just as advertising can make a person feel like they're betraying an ideal by not continuing to buy a product, Instagram's deepest hook is the impression that one is walking away from one's friends and the uncatalyzed emotional support they have to give by not continuing to post.
Adding video to that platform pushes that hook just a little deeper into the flesh of our daily lives. And slowly, the experience of living transforms from the practice of learning to be one's self to learning to become a capture device for the still-undocumented media we need as pretext to say “I love you”—to no one, and everyone, at the same time.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.