This is an article that I wrote for Creative Boom, part of The Guardian's Culture Professionals Network. All links open in a new window:
A picture is worth a billion dollars
16 Apr 2012
Facebook has just paid $1bn for Instagram, the social photo-filter app. Why? You might ask, what do they hope to gain from buying a service that essentially enables people to take a photo of a coffee cup, and then instantly make it look like it was taken in the '70s?
Well, there are some interesting figures compiled by 1000memories that might explain the reasoning.
Did you know that Facebook's photo library is the largest on the planet? There are over 140 billion photos there. Including that one of you dancing on a table with a bra on your head.
Ten per cent of all the photos that have ever been taken were shot in the past 12 months.
Think about that for a minute. Since 1826 and this, the first photograph, a black and white shot of a view from a window there have been (approximately) 3.5 trillion photos taken.
Digital cameras, smartphones and the internet have made the process of photography, development and publication instantaneous. Apps like Instagram make the editing aspect instant too. Now everyone can create a pleasing artistic product in a matter of seconds.
But how do professional photographers, designers, creatives, people who make their living from creating these artistic products, keep from being drowned in this ocean of content? Have they been made redundant by technology?
You could argue that the artistic skill is in seeing; you look at the world in a way different enough from others that you create things better than the average person.
An iPhone doesn't have a mind, let alone a mind's eye. The closest thing to a mind it has, Siri, is fine, but if you say to Siri 'create a masterpiece', all that happens is it mishears and rings your ex-girlfriend, then you have to have an awkward discussion about that time you danced on the table at her Grandad's birthday, with her bra on your head.
Maybe everyone is equally creative, all that stood in the way before was opportunity and an understanding of how to use the equipment, with an app like Instagram there is no need to know how a darkroom works, or even Photoshop, you just click and publish. This is the future, now.
Andy Warhol said that in this future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but I've done some quick maths. To watch everyone on Earth's 15 minutes would take 2,996,575,342.5 years. Imagine watching 'Earth's got talent' for that long.
Robert Hughes, the art critic, referred to Warhol as 'one of the stupidest people I've ever met in my life' but Andy Warhol was, at the very least, a kind of human Instagram. He took a mundane image - of a soup can - for instance, and applied a filter to it that made it 'art'. But what are we to do when everyone is Andy Warhol? When there are 140 billion images on Facebook, 3.5 trillion photographs on Earth?
It seems to me that we need, desperately, filters, but not necessarily the type of filters that make your photo of a coffee-cup look like it was taking with a Polaroid camera. No, we need filters that process content in terms of quality.
Perhaps the social element of an app like Instagram, of a network like Facebook, can through 'upvotes' and 'likes' create a hierarchy of quality, but this is not assured. A bad photo of Justin Bieber may well receive thousands more likes than a good photo of a soup can.
Are you a photographer or a designer? Do you feel threatened by this glut of content? Do you think that Instagram is a valid artistic tool, or do you think it a gimmicky toy that crowds out real creativity? Tell me - you have fifteen minutes.
Written by Michael Fredman
Michael Fredman is a London based writer, editor and creative who has worked on web and print publications in fields as diverse as international politics, health and film.