Learning from Instagram
There are over a hundred million users of Instagram. Apparently a new user is created every second somewhere in the world. Every day they post three hundred million photographs. By any stretch of the imagination this is a remarkable moment in our history. Setting aside the question of where those servers are and how we are creating a databank of the entire human experience, the fact that people have been so drawn to photographs tells us something about humanity. We now have our first universal language. It is as ancient as humanity itself, it is the image.
The cliche of our ancestors around the campfire at the entrance of the cave is apt. On the walls, images, around the fire, stories. Two forms of communication that have their own distinct roles in our lives and, presumably, their own discrete place in the process of human consciousness. The stories around the fire became writing and then film and television. The images on the wall became paintings and then photography. The use of both image and story has become the essential complexity of how we communicate.
I had the privilege of meeting, on several occasions, the brilliant writer Leonard Schlain who talked about the evolution of right and left brain functions, the image and the word, the female and the male sides. His thesis was that as soon as we invented the photograph we started a rebalancing of our cognitive processes that favored the language of imagery and, in consequence, the female side of the brain. The rebalancing of our gender roles was, he argued, a consequence of our rebalancing of our consciousness. At the heart of Dr Shlains interest was the phenomenon of the photograph. Stuart Brand imagined The Whole Earth Catalog after seeing the first photograph of the Planet Earth from space. It has been argued that those photographs from the Apollo mission altered our consciousness, Earth was the Blue Planet and, as a single ecological system, contained all humanity. In a real sense we are all one. Divided only by our cultures and stories.
Well, today we are uniting the world through images at the rate of three hundred million a day on Instagram alone. Photographs are the universal language. They are less bound by historic narrative, they unite more than they divide. A photograph is a photograph, whether it be a dead couple holding each other in the rubble of a garment factory in Bangladesh or a pet cat in a box in Berlin. Millions of ideas, millions of observations, millions of stories. This coming generation are as visually literate as they are word wise, maybe more so. The hashtag connects both the visual and the written world, enabling new levels of complexity in story telling. Instagram is not the private world of family photo albums, it is the public world of shared meaning. The language of Instagram sees no cultural boundaries, no political correctness and, perhaps most importantly, is rooted in the now more than the past. To imagine that the world is not being affected by these shared visual narratives would be naive.
The big question will be how?