The Instagram-itization of everything: Photos are so powerful that some apps just shouldn't use them

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 9, 2013

From The News Desk

We get it: Photos are powerful. Photos are the backbone that built Facebook, and they made Instagram the first $1 billion iPhone app.

Smartphones have redefined our relationship with photos, because they've removed every bit of friction to snapping, uploading, and sharing. You no longer need a camera with you. Or a cable to sync to your computer. You don't even need the computer. You don't have to rotate and size them appropriately. All of those hassles are gone now -- a bizarre relic of the past that my kids will never understand, like a rotary phone.

It's not a surprise that in an Instagram world everyone is rethinking how photos can play a role in their app. But lately, I'm wondering if every single iPhone app really needs to prompt you to take a picture and share it with the world.

The old saw is that pictures are worth a thousand words, but increasingly images are actually being substituted for words in our daily lives, because they are free, disposable and require very little effort. Far less effort, certainly, than text.  Images used to have a cost associated with them. In a film world, you had a finite number to take, and seeing them cost money. We had boxes full of undeveloped film. You had to wonder if it was really worth the $15. (Was it even $15? It's been so long, I actually don't remember.) And even in the early digital world, there was the "cost" of memory and the time and hassle of synching, printing, and sharing them. You had to really want to choose to to photograph something rather than, say, describe it. Today, photos in aggregate are a more precious part of our lives. But on an individual level, they're almost meaningless. They can do utilitarian things, not just be reserved to decorate or embellish.

Consider how Instagram is starting to reinvent the status message -- something that we've always considered to be comprised of words. Some teenagers are even hacking Instagram to communicate status messages to one another --  handwriting stuff and photographing it, and then using the comments to answer back.

Similarly, I've written before about how I'm increasingly using Snapchat as a replacement for texting with the people closest to me. Rather than texting my husband that my flight has landed, I'll text a picture of the wheels down from my window with a smiley face drawn on it. The picture disappears in three seconds because its work is done. And my husband feels a little more like he's there with me to share that glance out the window.

Consider the neighborhood social network, Nextdoor. With it's new iPhone app, you can be on a walk, see someone's garage door left open, look up who lives in that house, and email them a photo of it. You can snap a photo slyly of a suspicious character and blast it to the neighborhood. The potential to modernize the old idea of a neighborhood watch group through instantly available images is staggering.

It's little wonder, then, that every app maker is trying to figure out how to incorporate users' photographs into their product.

There's no doubt that photographs are the perfect way to capture the mundane aspects of our lives. Sometimes, though, we don't want our lives to be mundane. Or at least we don't want to be reminded of the fact that they are. We want to dream. And so, when an app is designed to help you dream -- through travel, fashion, luxury shopping -- user generated photography might actually make the experience less enjoyable for users.

Consider HotelTonight. It now incentivizes guests to photograph different parts of the room and upload them. It allows them to get a free bank of images of a property, and it's a way to show engagement. Everyone loves an engaged user, right? But as a user, do I care to see 15 versions of the same bathroom shot on someone's iPhone? Or would I rather book a hotel room that's shot by a professional photographer? Users may say they want unfiltered realism, but if you put the two next to each other, most people would book the room shot in a glitzy shoot. This isn't about covering up tired rooms: even a great hotel room can look cheap through the lens of an iPhone. Part of what you are buying is the escape. This is the reason I fell in love with Jetsetter: The lush photography that made me feel like I was reading a travel magazine, when I was booking a hotel.

Even more depressing was a recent experience I had with Rent the Runway. I tried the service for the first time when Pando went to the Emmys. It may come as a surprise to you that as a tech blogger who is typically covered in baby vomit and is lucky to find time in the day to shower, I don't exactly have a closet full of gowns. And since I'm still carrying plenty of baby weight, I wasn't about to go buy one. A perfect Rent the Runway use-case.

I went to the site to look around and was mostly pleased with the selection. There were several dresses I could see myself wearing. But then I clicked through to the user uploaded photos of everyday women like me wearing the dresses and immediately the spell was broken. I'm sure the founders of Rent the Runway would argue that user photos give me a better idea of how the dress might look on me. But instead they hammered home the less-than-savory aspect of Rent the Runway: You are not engaging in a luxury; you are sharing a dress with complete strangers. The service is supposed to give you consumable glamour, but its user-generated photos sucked all of that glamour out of the experience for me.

Models are picked and professionally photographed to sell clothes for a reason. It gives you an aspirational idea of how you will look -- it's a lie, of course, but -- here's the key: it's a lie we all willingly buy into. I would never look that thin in that dress, because I'm not a size two. My eyelashes will never look as long as the false ones the model is wearing in the Maybelline ad, but that's still the aspirational image in my head. It's the promise of a better us that underlies the concept of retail therapy.

The problem on Rent the Runway wasn't that the real-life women weren't gorgeous. Many of them looked great. It was that I didn't identify with them. Every photo set was overtaken by 16-year-olds wearing what I was picturing as my future Emmys dress to prom. The corsage. The pimply-faced date. The curly tendrils hanging from the copiously pinned and sprayed up do.

The same way I wouldn't read Seventeen magazine, as a grown woman, I just felt weird wearing someone's prom dress at my age. It unleashed a flood of questions. If it's age appropriate for them, is it necessarily not age appropriate for me? It made me doubt whether I should even be using Rent the Runway to begin with. If I'd just read the comments -- things like "I wouldn't recommend this if you are too chesty" -- but not seen the photos, somehow the illusion would have remained intact.

Like I said, photos are powerful. Sometimes when you get an image in your head, you can't get it out. For me, it ruined the illusion that this dress was something special just for me. That this dress was a sophisticated luxury that I could afford because of the cleverness of Rent the Runway's model. It made it just a little too grounded in reality. Fashion isn't about reality. It's about aspiration. Hotels are about a luxurious getaway. Sometimes we want to be lied to just a little bit, when it comes to shopping, not look at an item under the fluorescent lights.

And here's the irony: A lot of these apps are inspired by the runaway success of Instagram. But the reason Instagram was so popular was the filters, which hide reality, making us all look a little bit better than we are. Just because we can photograph and share everything with the world doesn't mean we should.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]