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The curious appeal of the Instagram filter

Happy birthday, Instagram! You're ancient already.

It's hard to believe that the ubiquitous photo-snapping service has only been with us for a year. This may be because every photo it takes looks like it's 30 years old.

Around the world, millions of people are taking photos with their iPhones, every one of them formatted into a little Polaroid square, and most of them given an instant filter that leaves them looking yellowed, faded, overexposed, underprocessed or otherwise like they come from any era other than the one we actually live in.

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But that's not all: Instagram's winning trick is to blast these photos out onto the Internet as soon as they're taken, creating a newsfeed of photographs that other users can follow, a breadcrumb trail of snaps. It's like other social networks, but with photos instead of text. It's like the charades version of Twitter. The charades version of Twitter where everything happens in 1976.

Needless to say, with a pitch like that, it's been a smashing success. Instagram's latest user count was somewhere north of 13 million. The company only employs seven people, and chief executive officer Kevin Systrom tells reporters that he hasn't figured out how it's going to make money yet, but this is seldom seen as a problem as long as users keep flooding in. So far, they've arrived at the rate of about a million each month. (The app is only available for iPhone; you can see Instagram photos on the open Web, but you need the app to follow them.)

I appreciate the success of Instagram. It's a very well-executed product. It's fast, fun and has a very expedient way of blasting out photos of things people see as they go about their lives. The fact that the entire social network revolves around pictures of relative mundanities relieves users of the pressure of creating great works of art before showing them to the world.

Besides, I am a great defender of sharing mundanities, in text or in images. Sharing life's smaller moments paints a picture of the bigger ones.

Still, there is something profoundly weird going on here. It's not the sharing, it's the filters.

Just as Instagram isn't the first Twitter-like social network, it wasn't the first to popularize vintage-tinted photos. Old-timey tinting effects have a venerable history in desktop photo-editing software, though never in my years have I seen anyone use them in earnest.

For a while, point-and-shoot digital cameras incorporated on-the-fly photo-altering techniques. One particularly memorable example was a Hewlett-Packard camera from the mid-2000s that would make subjects look slimmer by compressing the middle of the image, neatly encapsulating everything that's wrong with America in one tidy metaphor.

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As smartphones took hold, apps like Hipstamatic popularized the idea of applying retro filters to their camera shots. The idea caught on. In the beginning, it might have been a pragmatic reaction to the technology of the time (we're talking about the distant history of three years ago).

The camera in the early iPhones was prone to taking fuzzy, gunky photos; artfully distorting them further was a way of salvaging them. Vintage filters became the barbecue sauce of the photography world: a strangely appealing taste that's so pungent it overrules whatever might have been going on in the underlying food, for better or for worse.

Now, however, camera-phones are improving in quality by leaps and bounds. Yet, instead of retreating as unretouched photos improve, vintage-filtering is only expanding. Instagram's rise has confirmed that they're not just worth taking, but sharing.

Filtered photos are striking, to be sure, and the fact that so many millions are using them removes any stigma they might have had. Yet their visual appeal doesn't exist in a vacuum.

The vintage look is appealing because it tugs at the heartstrings of lost history. The grainy images evoke the glorious fiddliness of film cameras, and the effort it took to use them. The Twitter-like streams of photos evoke the shoeboxes of faded photos unearthed from top shelves, separated from context by lost decades.

History adds significance to a photo. The impression of history adds the impression of significance. It's more palatable to share mundane photos if they can be instantly aged and given a patina of an imaginary past.

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I took a picture of my radiator just now, and it looked like a radiator. I put a vintage filter on it, and it looked like a slice of life, showing the dents and scratches of hard living echoing down from the past, the inexpert caulking job evoking a struggle to beat back mice amid a scene of workaday toil. All of which, strictly speaking, is true. I did get rid of the mice; it just looks better if I pretend it happened under Diefenbaker.

You can't take issue with people for preferring images that look good. I can't help but wonder, though, if we'll remember these years as the years that we were bent on making our photographs look like they were from some other time.

One day, will we be applying filters to our holograms to make them look like junky first-generation cellphone snaps? Or is 2011 really so devoid of appeal that we'll avoid it in retrospect as assiduously as we're avoiding it

in the present? Best not to answer. A rose-coloured filter might be the best idea.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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