Instagram’s new video service might train us all to be artists

Instagram announced this week that it would add a mobile video component to its photo-sharing service. Some industry watchers noted that the new app’s ­15-second limit is also a typical advertisement length, and wondered whether the whole plot was just a product-placement scheme. Others sniffed that the addition was derivative thievery: What Instagram was proposing seemed remarkably similar to what Twitter’s video arm, Vine, was already doing. Tech writer Farhad Manjoo called the development lazy and “a sad day for Silicon Valley.”

But if Instagram Video is a Vine rip-off, it’s also a rip-off of any of the numerous other sites dedicated to the easy creation of sound-bite videos: Viddy, Cinegram, Echograph. (Rather, since the resulting products are often more visual than aural: eye bites?) The new video represents the era of the morsel, the tiniest of visual gulps. In his Thursday reveal, Instagram chief executive Kevin Systrom demonstrated the technology by premiering a video of a latte preparation. “Let’s focus on the latte itself,” he enthused, as the audience watched 15 seconds of a barista’s hand over a mug of coffee.

The eye-bite influx speaks to our general impatience and frenetic attention spans, to our self-involved need to self-document, to all of the social media themes we typically fret about. But it also speaks to the way consumers are increasingly expected to become auteurs. Instagram video is artistic training wheels.

Facebook-owned Instagram currently has about 100 million active users. It is beloved for its various photo filters, through which pictures can be made to appear as though they were shot in 1967, or in a film noir. While Vine videos top out at six seconds, Instagram’s maximum will feel comparatively luxurious. Or comparatively tedious.

“The narrative arc of a picture is complete in a single moment,” explains Sam Ladner, a sociologist and Microsoft researcher. “But when you look at a video, you’re captive to the videographer’s narrative.” She isn’t sure how easy it will be for users to transition from one medium to the other. “We’re going to see a lot of Instagrammers attempt to make the leap and do it quite badly — to the point where 15 seconds will feel like an eternity.”

Spend 20 minutes watching an assortment of Instagram-type videos and you'll see a bleating goat, a slow-pan of sushi, a man hit in the crotch with a football. Madonna’s first Instagram video is 15 straight seconds of booty-popping — reliably crowd-pleasing — but other than that, the selection feels unfinished. There are jokes that seem both as if they needed more time to unfold, and also as if they were flabby and needed cropping.

“No one’s made a great Vine video yet, for example,” says David Wilson, a documentary filmmaker, whose “We Always Lie to Strangers” is playing at AFI Docs this weekend. “But,” Wilson says, “I’ve seen a lot of interesting ones.”

In some ways, he says, the briefness of the videos is a positive catalyst. “If I’m teaching a video class and I say, ‘Go out and make a five-minute video,’ students get the deer-in-headlights look. But if I say, ‘It has to include the color red, and it has to use this prop, and it has to be about this theme,’ ” then students find the boundaries helpful and ultimately liberating.

“Limits right now,” Wilson says, “inspire creativity.”

It’s the haiku theory: Writing a great three-line poem is difficult but effective in poetic training.

Popular social media in recent years have been all about creativity-inspiring limits, whether in terms of brevity or bandwidth. Until 2010, YouTube required all uploads to be shorter than 10 minutes, prompting a rash of ­mini-sitcoms and spastic vloggers. Instagram — the ­still-image version — forced users into a square pictorial frame. The unexpected boxiness required even amateur point-and-shooters to consider composition. The filters required them to consider mood (even while negating any requirements for actual lighting knowledge).

And, of course, the most popular numerical limit in the past four years is 140: the number of characters allowed in a single tweet.

Back when Twitter was launched, people thought the length restrictions would result in intelligence restrictions, too — that the medium was a graveyard of boring breakfast observations. Instead, the site at its best became a comedy/commentary workshop with an instant feedback mechanism: the retweet.

“Society is now telling us that writing smartly in public is a skill that you should have,” says Nathan Jurgenson, a ­social-media theorist and contributor to future-pondering journal the New Inquiry. “And society is now telling us that being a decent photographer is good for your social life” through services like Instagram. “And now, we’re starting to be asked, are you good at moving images? Are you good at audio?”

We’re learning how to be creative in steps, with social media doling out assignments one at a time. We’re lurching along in six- to 15-second intervals, practicing our scales before trying sonatas. That banal debut Instagram video of the latte preparation? It didn’t look much like art. But it did look like a technical-skills project a professor might assign group of beginner students. It did look like something that might get better.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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