vanity_instagram_crop“When we joined Facebook, a lot of people asked me this question: What is Instagram? What is Instagram all about?” said Kevin Systrom, CEO of the afore-mentioned company, during the announcement of the service’s new video features. “And it’s a tough question — not because it’s undiscoverable, not because it’s intangible, but because it has a different meaning based on who’s asking the question and who’s answering it.”

For me, Instagram is a vanity mirror through which its users are able to share carefully curated (and heavily filtered) snippets of the lives they wish their followers to believe they lead. For the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham, Instagram is “a highlights reel of your life that shows off versions of yourself that you want to remember and put on display in a glass case for other people to admire and browse through.” For BuzzFeed’s John Hermann and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, Instagram is a sign of Facebook’s — and the rest of Silicon Valley’s — inability to innovate.

But for Gramfeed users, Instagram and its new video feature might best resemble a spyglass that allows them to peer into other users’ lives, not a vanity mirror. The service, which previously served as a third-party website meant to bring the previously mobile-only service to the desktop, recently added a feature that automatically plays videos uploaded to Instagram. This update makes Gramfeed a bit like Vinepeek, a service that applies the same concept to Vine and was described by BuzzFeed, the finest distributor of Web miscellanies this side of Reddit, as “the most addictive new site on the Internet.”

Gramfeed, like Vinepeek, is a largely uncontrollable entity that allows its users to peek into others’ lives for a few moments at a time. The service offers more controls than Vinepeek, which doesn’t allow viewers to go back to previously-played videos or skip past a clip, but is still largely feature-free. You can’t search for videos from a specific user. You can’t view a certain category of video (sorry, porn-seekers). You can’t do much besides watch as the looking glass shifts its focus from one random person to another.

These services are the result of a natural symbiosis between narcissism and voyeurism. Some people want to share the minutia of their lives, because they feel that whatever they’re doing, thinking, or saying is worth recording and broadcasting to whoever might be paying attention. Others want to be able to gather those snippets and peer into someone else’s life for just a moment or two, to feel some kind of connection with someone who will disappear within a few seconds. This is your life, and everyone else’s life, passing by on your display one six- or fifteen-second clip at a time.

“As we are separated by timezones, boundaries, and even language, Instagram keeps us connected,” Systrom said during the announcement. “Our mission is to capture and share the world’s moments. We believe that by doing that we make the world a better place.” That requires someone to share their lives — or, at least, a certain version of their lives — but it also requires someone to be on the other end. Narcissists want attention. Voyeurists are more than happy to give it.

[Image adapted from wikimedia commons]