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Instagram and the Mainstreaming of Hipster Culture

April 11, 2012

On Monday, when Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion, the Internet exploded in a confusing din of conflicting opinions. Some loyal Instagram users were indignant. Pundits wondered aloud if Facebook would “ruin” Instagram. One Apple FAQ even offered advice on how to save your photos and close your Instagram account. For some, this event marked a cultural apocalypse: the death of a unique Internet culture at the hands of a huge, powerful megabusiness.

What many loyal Instagram users failed to recognize was that their community had already gone mainstream. In other words, Facebook bought Instagram precisely because it was cool and popular. When Instagram released their app for Android, the program was downloaded 1 million times in the first 24 hours. When Facebook purchased Instagram, the community had grown to 30 million users. Once the mainstream “declared” Instagram cool, it was no longer cool; this is the hipster ethos at its strongest.

But Instagram had mainstreamed hipster culture long before its purchase by Facebook. The Instagram app itself represents a core element of the hipster ethos. Millions of people used Instagram, not simply because they liked the program, but because, consciously or not, they wanted the very thing that this hipster ethos represents.

Hipster Culture

Defining hipster culture is always controversial. Controversial because hipsters believe that they are neither hipsters nor that such a thing as hipster culture exists. As Douglas Haddow put it: “Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the ‘Hipster.'” This vague, amorphous melting pot defies easy classification or definition. Often, those attempting to define the hipster, do so through a series of images: “Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called “wifebeaters,” worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; “porno” or “pedophile” mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos” (Mark Greif).

Not a hipster. Or so he'll tell you.

As difficult as it may be to come upon a single definition of hipster culture, there is an underlying ethos that unites it. This is the idea of the authentic. Christian Lorentzen nails this in a piece for TimeOut New York. He writes that “under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” I once jokingly called hipster culture the “ironic appreciation and fetishisation of blue collar culture.” Hence the trucker hats, flannel shirts, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, etc. I now see that I only saw a part of the story. While a strong vein of irony indeed runs through hipster culture, it is that search for the authentic that defines the movement. Here are young people, mostly white, mostly affluent, appropriating the styles of other “authentic” cultures (whether they be blue collar, black, or hippie) to replace the lack of authenticity in their own lives. To sneer at hipster culture, as many people do, is to sneer at the struggle of young people everywhere, who in every era have tried to carve out identities for themselves against the tides of cultural change.

Once you understand that hipster culture is about identity and the concept of the authentic, the whole movement becomes much easier to understand. It’s about looking into the past with nostalgia, not irony. Haddow criticized hipsters  for “consuming cool rather than creating it” and that their “self-involved and isolated maintenance” inhibits cultural evolution. Hipster culture may be a culture of consumption as Haddow suggests, but it consumes in order to define. It is a search for identity and for authentic experience. Yes, hipster culture fundamentally looks backwards and not forwards, but for good or for ill, this rear view nostalgia, centered around the experience of the authentic, defines hipster culture.

Instagram and Hipster Culture

Instagram is an app for the iPhone and Android OS that allows users to take, filter, and share photos as they take them. Instagram’s most famous feature combines photos to a square shape, much like an old Polaroid. Since it was introduced in 2010, the Instagram program has grown to over 30 million users worldwide and offers its service in nine languages.

Polaroid - 1972.

Why do people love Instagram so much? Instagram’s filters and shape features allow users to transform their mundane, everyday photos into snapshots that seem spontaneous and authentic. These pictures hearken back to a time when people took Polaroids and photos for their own personal enjoyment and without ulterior motive. Today’s users are burned out by a Facebook that asks its users to put all of their personal memories online. Instagram offers these users the chance to share photographs, not with the world, but with a smaller community of like-minded people.

Here we see the intersection of the mainstream and hipster culture. Instagram has tapped an almost universal nostalgia for a time before the Internet, a time before memories became commoditized by Facebook and Google. It offers its users the imitation of authenticity, authenticity that their photos would otherwise lack. When a user takes a photo with Instagram, she wants her photo to represent her immersion in that moment and a love for the action of photography itself. Instagram transforms a narcissistic action into a spontaneous one.

Instagram Photo - 2011

This photographic aesthetic has its origins in hipster culture. Vice Magazine, the defining publication of hipster culture, has, in the words of the Independent “had an abiding influence on global scenester style. The magazine’s photographers popularised a street-verité photographic vernacular, with touches of soft porn and a sense of menace.” Again, we see this relentless look backwards for inspiration and identity. By offering its users the Vice aesthetic, Instagram gives users a chance to revel in nostalgia and experience the authentic.

Explaining the Anger

It would be easy to mock as posers the angry users who want to quit Instagram. Here are people who no longer want to be associated with something that everyone now thinks is cool. This fits our stereotype of the hipster: a young person who always has to be one step ahead of everyone else.

However, it’s only when you understand Instagram as an embodiment of the search for the authentic does the anger over the Facebook takeover make sense. People fled Facebook and its photo sharing precisely because they felt that their photos were being monetized by Facebook, Google, and perhaps even Flickr. Instagram was fun, easy, and silly. It made people feel good and gave them the chance to turn their new memories into something that felt lived in and real. Authentic. Now that Facebook has purchased Instagram, these users have panicked; they see the purchase as another attempt to steal something dear from them.

Instagram may have brought hipster culture mainstream, but it points to something more uniquely human: our desire for identity and authenticity in a world that feels increasingly phony and inauthentic.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jan permalink
    April 11, 2012 7:51 PM

    Thanks for having your own desire for identity and authenticity; love your writing.

  2. April 19, 2013 7:14 PM

    With havin so much written content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?

    My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any methods to help reduce content from being stolen? I’d really appreciate it.

    • April 22, 2013 1:51 PM

      Hi Scott! It’s totally possible, but if it’s happened to me I haven’t noticed. If you’re really serious about it, you could try using Creative Commons. Also, if the people stealing your content are posting it to blogs hosted by the likes of WordPress or Tumblr, there are often policies in place that could lead to that content being removed or to the offending blogs being shut down.


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