Friday, January 11, 2013


Instagram appeared in the news quite often in 2012. The social media/photography smartphone app was purchased by Facebook last spring for one billion dollars and there has been a lot of hullabaloo in the past few months including an ongoing feud with Twitter as well as a new Terms of Service agreement that had many users in an uproar.

Despite all of the recent negative press and some very public account deletions by professional photographers, Instagram appears to be a social media phenomenon that has staying power. The service has become extremely popular among teenagers and twentysomethings and has also made several positive steps toward the continual growth of its user base: it is no longer exclusive to iPhone users (the app has been available for Android smart phone users since last April) and it is slowly rolling out the ability to view the photographs of Instagram users on the web.

At this point those unfamiliar with Instagram may be asking themselves, “Ok. Good to know, but what does Instagram actually do?” The answer to that question is that the application allows users to take photos with their phones (or to choose a photo from their iPhone’s camera roll or their Android device’s My Gallery), crop the image, then choose and apply an artistic filter to the image. Users may then upload the resultant image to the web along with a descriptive comment. You can follow other Instagram users and other users can follow your Instagram account, “like” your image, and comment on the image.

Although that sounds very simplistic, the results are often stunning. The filters range from “Normal” (i.e. no filter) to “Hefe” (a filter that adds saturation and warmth to the colors in an image) and “1977” (a filter that desaturates the colors of an image so that they look like a faded color photograph) and the recently released “Willow” (a monochrome filter with a slight, purple hue). For example, the photograph below is a very plain photo, but the most of filters displayed below improve the quality of the original image and definitely make it more interesting.

Like twitter, Instagram utilizes hashtags - which are an example of metadata (which simply means data about data) - to make the vast collections of images stored online easier to browse and search. Hashtags such as #photooftheday and #nofilter and #instamood are some of the most popular terms used to tag photos within the app. A search for these terms will bring up thousands of images - some breathtaking and some mundane. Since these are the most popular hastags on Instagram, most of the results are going to be self portraits taken in a bathroom mirror.

Less popular hashtags will give you more interesting results. For example, a search for the hashtag #fetedeslumieres brings up a stunning series of images from the French city of Lyon’s Festival of Lights.

Unfortunately, individuals without the smartphone app cannot search the images on Instagram itself, but they can use some third party websites such as Gramfeed to conduct their own hashtag searches. A quick search for the hashtag #instagrambham (a hashtag used by a group of Instagram users from around Birmingham) returns many interesting photos from around the Magic City.

Instagram is a must have app for anyone with an Android or iPhone. It makes taking photos with your phone a much more enjoyable and creative experience. It also appears that Facebook is slowly incorporating the service into its social network –- so everyone who uses Facebook may become very familiar with Instagram in 2013.

By the way, the Birmingham Public Library now has an Instagram account (bplpics) and it is available for anyone to see at the following web address:

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