The Instagram 101

I remember hearing about Instagram in 2012, signing up, and being confused at the concept. “Why do we need Instagram if Facebook already exists? Who wants to see pictures of other people’s food?” And this was before the selfie craze was born.

Here’s the way to think about it, using a brief foray into recent history. Back in the early time of camera phones and smartphones, pictures you took stayed on your phone. I personally wouldn’t use the camera in my phone very often – I brought a digital camera that took much better pictures, and that were easier to copy to my computer and save. But as cameras in smartphones improved, the quality of pictures rose. Instagram started as a photo service to get pictures off your phone. Sure, there were always services like Kodak Gallery and Snapfish to print your photos out, but the process of uploading them to the computer, then to the website, then cropping or resizing them to finally placing an order was excruciating – never mind the weeklong delay waiting for the pictures to arrive. I can personally attest to leaving hundreds of pictures in my cart on those websites, just because I got fed up with the process.

The point of Instagram, simply, is to share the pictures that live on your phone, the great photos you take that might not see the light of day otherwise. Instagram is mobile only, meaning you can’t upload from the computer to Instagram. (Let’s not get into the hoops that professional photographers have to go through to post photos from their DSLRs – we’re used to it now, but Instagram is designed to be mobile-only.)

Do you remember the phase “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We all know what it means. And although people do like to read, a person in today’s world is more likely to digest and react to a photo than read a thousand words and respond.

When was the last time you were in art gallery or a museum? Did you walk around? There were probably many pictures on the walls, but why did some pictures hold your attention more than others? Perhaps it was the subject matter. Maybe it was the colors the artist used. Your attention might have been captured because there was a crowd around a certain painting. Everyone is attracted to different artwork for different reasons.

That’s the easiest mindset to go into Instagram with. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Instagram is a Mobile-only, living art gallery. Photos on Instagram don’t have to be perfect, just good enough. If you can show what you’re doing in that moment, why that moment is special as you’re in it – you’re ready for Instagram. If people might like that photo because of the subject matter, or the colors in the picture, or because other people are interested, then you’re on your way to making your own living art museum on Instagram.

Of course, there are advanced techniques to make your pictures more engaging. Can you make someone laugh at your picture? Could you make them forget the rough day they’re currently having? Can you inspire through your picture? Can you motivate them with an image? Can you instruct by breaking down a difficult concept through an photo? Can you show them something they might never get to see otherwise? Can you bring up feelings of nostalgia or optimism? (Never underestimate the feelings of nostalgia, or planning for the future. All you have to do is reflect back to your first crush or think about your upcoming vacation.) All of these things can translate well into what an audience wants to see.

However, there are many nuances to Instagram as the platform has evolved over time. While the platform was initially launched for pictures only, it soon expanded to allow short videos up to 15 seconds long. Recently that was changed to allow videos up to 60 seconds. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what can you accomplish in an extremely short video?

You’re probably thinking – “Creating pictures is going to be challenging enough! Why would I want to create a video?”

The best analogy is art. During the Renaissance, painters were idolized. But paintings have a severe handicap. What’s the problem with a painting? The truth is that it flat. It’s only 2 dimensional. What’s on the back? Nothing. It’s a waste of space. Even if there was something interesting on the back, no one can see it because it’s on the wall.

During the Renaissance, sculptors began to create their art, and although sculpture is very different from paintings, the key differentiation is that sculpture is 3 dimensional. What’s the back of the sculpture look like? What does it look like from above, or beneath? What can you see at different angles?

The way you understand the difference between paintings and sculpture, the difference between radio and television, is the same difference between pictures on Instagram and video.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced that video is worth the effort. For a moment, think back to your favorite television shows 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and now? (My answers: 1996 – Seinfeld. 2006 – 24. 2016 – Fresh Off The Boat.) Whatever shows come to your mind, why were they able to hold your attention?

Whatever the answer is to that question, you need to learn from. When it comes to Instagram, techniques to capture attention are the same things that worked on radio or television, just in a different format. You can make your audience laugh, you can keep them in suspense, you can educate your them, you can inspire them, motivate them, or help them forget their terrible day. You can make your audience think of simpler times, or you can help them plan for the future.

Here’s the underlying issue, and one I’ll return to again and again. In this world, we have many things competing for our attention. Our daily lives, our jobs or education, our families, our mobile devices with text messages, emails, and other apps, television, and much more. How, in a busy world, can I capture someone’s attention and hold it?

In the early days of radio, you might see a family crowded around the radio in their living room. That was their main source of information, so they were a captive audience. Today, that attention is being competed for in a number of ways – so what can you do to grab someone’s attention and hold it? In today’s world, people have changed. Have you ever been talking to a person when they pull out their phone and suddenly they’re in “phone world”? They’re not hearing you. They’ve gone completely into phone world and only by jarring them out of it can you regain their attention.

It’s also true that people’s attention spans have gotten shorter. My wife is a licensed Kindergarten through 12th grade Social Studies teacher. She was taught to teach her class in small blocks of learning – 7 to 10 minutes maximum, followed by a group activity or break, then back to teaching. Why? Typically television shows have 7 to 10 minutes of programming before a commercial, so our attention spans have adjusted accordingly.

Instagram is the best attention getting platform currently available. That will change at some point, but right now it’s a great mix of a visual medium, the ability to show what’s going on at the moment, and to find other people’s work easily.