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By Catherine Cromer Access to new media, particularly social media, is now taken for granted much like other media objects of the past despite the increased complexities and mediums in a highly digital, or electronic, culture. The popularity and widespread use of smartphones has created a different kind of digital and media culture that is mediated through a number of institutions and social processes that are embedded in a history of changing technology and adaption of media landscapes by the social, political and economic landscape. For example, Instagram provides an interesting case study of how new media functions not merely through user-generated content, but through the medium as the message that ties the ubiquity of such media sharing and communication to notions of space and time, power and authority. Originally a mobile phone app, Instagram presents a metamedium interface that as McLuhan would say “works by making itself invisible.” Through a phone, millions of people are able to receive, send and upload data through a blink of an eye to these photography website, now owned by social media mogul Facebook. However, it is not just just the numerous pictures of food, cats and photo-filtered landscapes that make the meaning behind Instagram, it is its medium and mediation of photos, internet, phone, production and history.
In “Always Already New,” Gitelman points out that new media “is never entirely revolutionary: new media are less points of epistemic rupture than they are socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning as such.” The examples of the printing press and telegraph demonstrate how the information and communication produced from these technologies reconstructed the format of daily life by change the mode in which humans perceived and experience symbols. While perhaps not as groundbreaking as either of the aforementioned artefacts, Instagram lies within the greater medium of smartphones and social media with the additional revamping of the prior media technology of the camera and photography. It’s position as part of the world of “user-generated media” makes the mediology of application hard to distinguish from its content. However, in order for Instagram to function, is important to understand the institutional-social structures, such as the creation and proliferation of smartphones for instant media gratification, companies like Apple and Facebook among others who have invested into the program and the desire of users for a sense of “power and authority” in producing self-generated media content. Instagram’s logo itself depicts a camera, yet one that symbolizes the notion of producing digital media through social media through the lens of a phone that can than be manipulated to look like an “authentic” photograph is an interesting of the extension of creating a picture and reality of ourselves though this medium. As it’s name implies, Instagram has changed the idea of time and space by allowing for automatic pictorial updates that are complex not only as a still moment of life,but one that can be altered through filters and cropped in matter of seconds.
As a form of cold media, Instagram is highly participatory and therefore depends on its users. However, in the land of the digital, the power and authority of who owns what is a contested social-ideological idea. The concept of ownership recently came into dispute as Facebook, who bought Instagram last year, announced in late 2012 that it “owned” all photos taken by users and had “the right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes.” (news.cnet.com) They quickly took out the language from the policy agreement after user uproar, but the dissemination of personal information is a mediation of the new digital era arising from these “free” social media sites. Additionally, to understand the mediation of digital photos, the evolution of photography, phones, the internet and social media need to be looked at as reconfigured means of communication and human understanding. The medium of the camera and the production of photography changed people’s cognitive and sensory faculties by providing easily reproducible, printable and in general real-life visuals of people, places and things without them actually being there at that exact time. Instagram is extending that notion in combination with social media in which it is common practice now to form digital identities and have multiple modes of instant communication. Many of us, especially younger generations have grown up with smartphones and access to social media, taking this technology and instant media sharing for granted. However, to understand the way that popular applications like Instagram shape our modes of communication, we have to understand the emergence and context of the medium.