Can History be Photogenic?

I have talked a lot about “the web” and history lately. We have already seen the potential in Twitter and author-created websites for generating or sharing historical knowledge, but what about other social media?

Many of my peers in Professor Robert’s course have written about the use of Instagram, in particular, as a platform. While part of me wishes to cite another example, I struggle to name another that I have used as often for entertainment, updates, and exposure. It would be difficult to deny that Instagram has grown to such scale and depth that it could be a model for what Sam Han and others considers the “Web 2.0.”

First, a brief history.

Instagram was founded in 2010.

Co-founder Kevin Systrom created the first ever post on July 16, 2010. This photo, taken of his dog at a taco stand in Todos Santos, Mexico, like others early in Instagram’s life, was simple in terms of the features it offered. A photo, a caption, a comment section, and like/share buttons. That’s it.

View this post on Instagram

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A post shared by Kevin Systrom (@kevin) on

Over the years, Instagram has added features and tools that have helped to distinguish itself from other media sites as a Web 2.0 platform. As my colleague, Anna Claspy, traces in her own blog (which I highly recommend), the addition of a web-browsing interface, video sharing and instant messaging and even “stories”–that is, photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours–have helped make Instagram more than just a photography app.

Instead, it has become an easy-to-use tool across multiple devices capable of generating discussion and exhibiting recent and distant history in a variety of forms.

Pilsen Chicago Pic
Pictures of murals found along the overpass bordering 16th street in Pilsen, Chicago.

The use of location tagging, for example, has been particularly helpful as an organizational tool and as an avenue for engaging target communities. The ability to map and tag where an artifact, building, or experience exists not only helps to ground history into physical space, but can invite contributions from others who appreciate the history behind the picture.

Many institutes and organizations devoted to history and the humanities operate their own Instagram pages, offering their followers updates on ongoing projects or previews of future events or exhibits.  Some, such as the Chicago History Museum, have even used the platform to regularly engage in object history to mark the significance of items in exhibit.

 

With all that said, is Instagram a flawless Web 2.0 tool for public historians? Probably not.

The organization of content on Instagram leaves much to be desired. For individual and organizational accounts, posts may only be displayed chronologically by upload date or by the number of likes. The inability to, for example, search for a particular post on a museum Instagram page makes it difficult to envision using Instagram as an archival source.

As we have seen with history websites as well, the quality or durability of an organization’s Instagram page can diminish without regular use or updates. Unsupervised accounts can make for easy targets for bots, spam, and other unwanted content, whose presence could turn away audiences interested in the creator’s content.

In terms of discussion, Instagram does have the capability to tap into and spark conversations with subject tags, location markers, and informative captioning. By that same token, however, posts could be subject to trolling, inflammatory comments, or invalid flagging for removal–for instance, if a piece of art features nudity.

Overall, I would argue that the benefits of Instagram as a tool for public history outweigh the limits and risks it shares with other social media.  Its accessibility on mobile and laptop devices, ease at finding tagged content scholars and the layman care about, and connectivity other forms of social media and web content makes Instagram a great, potential nontraditional tool at engaging in public history.

Perhaps the greatest strength and challenge in Instagram lies in its non-linearity, both in terms of the ability to segregate content you want and to avoid entertaining (but distracting) material unrelated to the knowledge we wish to gain or share with others who share our interests.

It is by no means a replacement of other methods of sharing content and communication, but with a determination to maintain and publicize content in such a way that peers and the interested public can find, public historians should be able to count upon Instagram as just one of many tools in their academic arsenal.

 

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3 thoughts on “Can History be Photogenic?

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Lucas! I’m very interested by all the people who chose to write about Instagram. I think we fall on the same side of the fence, here–I love the possibilities of Instagram for public history!

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