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May 16, 2012 / Gina D.

Instagram: Hip to be square

After months of (mostly) silently judging Instagram and the entire #PhotoADay “monthly” “challenge” (yes, each of those deserve their own set of quotes in order to apply proper levels of sarcasm: it’s not monthly if it’s EVERY day of EVERY month, and “grass”? “laundry”? Are these things really that challenging to photograph? Are they things I really want to spend time flipping through?) bandwagon, I’ve been trying to like this social media Facebook liked enough to pay $1 billion to acquire.

Let’s just say it hasn’t been an easy sell.

Instagram annoyed me right out of the gate with its shape. With my background in design, I couldn’t help myself. Square photos were pretty much a fundamental no-no in just about every photo- and design-related J-School class I ever took. Not to mention that square media seems to invite gaping (wasted) space when plugged into various forms of social media. More on that later.

My second and more relevant beef was watching it divert the attention of journalists from more practical — and more PUBLISHABLE — forms of photos via social media. More than once, I’d been thwarted in my attempts to keep up with a reporter’s breaking-news coverage by an old-timey filter applied to an otherwise perfectly usable photo. Very frustrating. Very irritating. Very avoidable. Can’t say I’ve ever really had many issues with photos transmitted via Twitter, Facebook, G+, Tumblr, etc., and if anyone ever invents a filter-removing app, be sure to let me know ASAP.

It also didn’t help that Instagram was beyond my reach for so long. Without an iPhone at my disposal, I’d only recently been granted access to the app as a Droid user. (Oh, yeah! My new iPad has a camera. I keep forgetting that…)

But still, given its popularity, I felt compelled to download the app and give it a test-drive — and hopefully come away with some sort of practical use for it.

 

Ironically, the first such practicality I found was in its shape:

A square photo, it’s perfect for instant icons — a phenomenon I think I’d already been observing in people’s profiles without making the connection.

The rest of it — filters, filters and more filters —  just seemed like fun more than anything else. Not that I’m anti-fun. And, I have to admit, even the most basic of filters made my photos looks prettier than the Droid’s default settings (which are pretty much hideous). Still, a few frustrations, in no particular order:

1. Instagram-ified photos don’t instantly load to my G+ photo feed; only the originals show up in my “from phone” feed. Disappointing, given that the files are saved as separate images once I’ve uploaded them to Instagram. Seems like this one could be remedied with a little corporate cooperation (note my optimism).

2. No selective posting for your main feed. Not posting Instagram-ified photos to your feed, or posting them only to certain people, isn’t an option for Instagram like it is for every other social media with which it’s integrated. What can I say? Sometimes I don’t feel like inundating my work peeps with pictures of my nephews, regardless of how unbelievably cute they are. Hopefully, since Facebook finally figured out Google+ was onto something there, maybe Instagram’s not far behind in adopting this trait from its new parent.

3. iPhone and Droid versions NOT created equal. Nevermind; apparently there was an update posted last week that catches up the Droid version with the features that have been available for iPhone for some time, namely the blurring tool. But I’m still going to rant a little on this one: The iPhone version allows you to apply the filters ahead of snapping the photo; the Droid version uploads the photo — and decides the crop for you — before you ever get a chance to apply and tweak a filter. Not sure if that’s Droid’s fault or Instagram’s, but as a user, all that techno-bullying seems to lend credence to the stereotype that iPhones are for creatives and Droid doesn’t get it. IMHO, an app shouldn’t get to decide that.

OK, so iPhones take prettier (and smaller) photos. iGetIt. But isn’t that all the more reason to prioritize Droid users to get access to all the bells and whistles ahead of the iPhone? Is it really necessary to show one platform preference so far ahead of the other? Can’t we all just get along? Technologically, economically and whatever other nerd-ally, the answer may just have to be “no,” but it’s not going to stop me from asking — OK, whining — about it.

4. No desktop version. OK, I get that the whole thing is driven by mobile phone photos. But every social media platform out there lets its users have access to their feeds via a desktop dashboard of some kind — even FourSquare, for crying out loud! When I hit roadblocks or have to come up with my own workarounds just to access/flip through my own feed, the sour grapes feel a little more justified.

About.me seems to have figured out a way to create a specific user’s feed, so… Instagram, please give me a fully automated stream linked to the username you made me create. Please figure out a way to still stand a little bit on your own and let me have a place to more easily find folks to follow that’s not Facebook. Please provide me with an entry point from which I can quickly retrieve digital versions of my Instagram photos. Please allow me my own personal photo stream I can link to and/or Storify. Please. Pretty please?

4a. Storify favors bonafide instagr.am links. That’s all the more reason to give users a more direct line of access to their photos. Without a home page or a main feed, you have to seek out the genuine Instagram links yourself, or pay an ugly toll: those big black strips on each side bookending your pics like a reverse letterbox. Dang it. No direct access to my Instagram photos makes for one annoying circle: a bit of a search, followed by up to three clicks through the catchall “album” I set up in Tumblr or a magically appearing Facebook album before I’ve got access to a specific photo OF MY OWN, just so I can throw it into a Storify. Phew.

5. Instagr.am links don’t draw enough attention to the caption. By now, Instagram, you don’t really need to be so in-your-face about promoting your own app. Users’ words should be bigger than the promotional text that appears on every single instagr.am pic out there. Frankly, I expect more from an app that supposedly promotes creativity.

Fix a couple of the above items, Instagram, and I promise I’ll stop calling you a fad… to your face…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Those shortcomings aside, I set out on a recent vacation back to the homeland determined to find ways Instagram could prove useful. After a bit of practice, I found I was able to use it to tell stories.

OK, so this first one was more like a poem — if that:

My second attempt was a bit better, or at least more informational. (Mouse over the pics for semi-informative captions.)

The Storify version(s) is still a better read, of course, since you can include many more details. But, among other issues I have with Storify, it seems I’ve looped back around to one of my top Instagram beefs, as mentioned above: does not compute.

So I guess in the end, I’m still not a huge fan. I don’t always even remember to use it. But I’m trying to keep after it — with an open mind.

Prove me clueless

If you’ve got few super cool newsy Instagram examples, I’d love to see them. I’m always willing to be wrong.

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