Facebook and Instagram: Made for each other

April 10, 2012

Facebook bought Instagram on Monday for one buh-buh-billion dollars, a tectonic lurch in the realm of social media, and what does this have to do with the real world — the chaotic world that surrounds us, not the orderly one that is contained in the tininess of our smartphone screens?

Nothing. Or everything.

Given the volume of reaction to the acquisition, one’s mind jumps to BP absorbing the dregs of Standard Oil, or Consolidated Edison gobbling up any number of smaller gas and electric companies. Forget the Carnegies and Rockefellers, those titans of utility. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram’s Kevin Systrom are our titans of futility, and their marketplace is the shadow world in which we delight at the expense of our time and productivity. Their products have expanded the world while shrinking it to a portable dashboard. They have championed the interface at the expense of the face-to-face, and broadened our hive mind.

That hive mind has hemmed and hawed about the over-widgeted Facebook infecting the clean-and-simple Instagram, but the services are made for each other. They deserve to be together. They are both tools with which we define and refine our self-images, and they both allow us to edit and filter the world as we see fit.

Your grandmother’s been on Facebook for years now, and the novelty has long ago worn off for the social-networking service’s 483 million daily active users. But, at 18 months old and with 30 million-plus users, Instagram is a newer animal. Its users take photos with their smartphones, choose artsy filters to burnish the images and post the doctored products to a stream in which one’s followers can react with “likes” or comments. There are 17 basic filters that enhance what would otherwise be a phone-y photo: “X-pro II” over-sharpens contrast to Warholian levels, for example, and “Kelvin” makes a photo look as though it was taken on a cliff in Malibu.

The amateur Instagrammer subjects his or her followers to endless shots of flowers simply because a filter gives them a sheen of artfulness or individuality. With Instagram at one’s disposal, the geometric formation in a cappuccino’s foam is not just a passing fancy; it is a detail to be shot, filtered into iconography and shared with strangers. It is also a way to communicate to friends and followers that you are the type of person who both drinks a cappuccino with shapely foam and is so taken with the shapely foam that you must turn it into instant art. The Instagram: the visual equivalent of minute rice.

Instagram is the nexus of kitsch and irony, and its filters might have belonged in the toolbox of recently deceased artist Thomas Kinkade, that self-described “painter of light” whose sun-dappled renderings of pastoral scenes nauseated critics and entranced millions. There is good art and bad art, fact and fiction, and Instagram falls somewhere in between, and that territory has now been ceded to Facebook’s kingdom.

Just as Instagram makes bad photos look good and good photos look great, Facebook makes you look happy and loved if you’re not, and joyous and adored if you are. Self-brand and share. Filter and share. Share the edited stuff, the varnished stuff, the stuff with the halo around it. Take a step away from truth for the sake of beauty.

Don’t upload the black-and-white self-portrait of your semi-breakdown in a workplace bathroom stall.

Don’t post a status update about how your girlfriend cheated on you over, and over, and over again.

Do snap that sunset and amplify its ordinary beauty with a “Toaster” filter.

Do post your Instagram photos to your Facebook profile, so surreality can be housed within artifice.

So what does the Facebook-Instagram marriage mean for our world, the world outside our phones, the one that’s filtered only by our corneas and presented unsorted, unblocked and at random?

Nothing. Or everything. It’s a conundrum that can be sidestepped only by invoking Keats. Beauty. Truth. One and the same. Extrapolate this to the social media, and accept that fake beauty can be real truth. So let’s raise our smartphones to the union of Instagram and Facebook. May their matrimony keep us in perpetual, artful light.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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