In 2008, I bought a Polaroid camera from a thrift store near Diamond Bar, California for $2. It remains to this day my best thrift store find. It was a point of pride: unanimously cool, appealingly retro and no one else had one. Sure, a pack of 10 shots cost me $22 and within a few months Polaroid ceased manufacturing the film. But in the mean time, it was like being a member of the secret instant film treehouse club. I followed the updates of The Impossible Project, filled an album with my pictures and felt like I had something special.
The rise of Instagram didn't kill instant film, but it did makes its revival unnecessary. Before the app changed the playing field, The Impossible Project was putting out some beautiful cameras and film packs while Polaroid rededicated themselves to their forte with a campaign helmed by Lady Gaga. Yet it was all for naught when nearly everything people liked about Polaroids was aped and improved upon by those bastards at Hipstamatic and Instagram: the character of the borders, the randomness of the focus, and the way it seemed to pull light from the air. The only thing they didn't have was the physical product, the picture in your hands, but like everything else digital we just stopped valuing solid objects.
I hated Instagram at first. It was an irrational, petty hatred; I knew that and gladly indulged. Part of it was obviously the opening of the gates that let all these kids into my secret treehouse. Whereas I had to sift through a pile of second hand crap and buy overpriced endangered film on the reg, every asshole from my high school suddenly achieved the artful character of instant film in their Facebook profile picture. Popularity is one of the stupidest reasons to dislike something, and I have a track record of it. Notably, I never signed up for a MySpace in its heyday, simply because everyone insisted that I needed one. (I jumped ahead to thefacebook and got to feel like an elitist early adopter.) With Instagram, the ship was already sailing, full steam ahead, and I was stuck in the past with a bulky camera that I couldn't buy film for.
There was something else, too. With its vignette style shadowed edges, mimicked film frames and obvious post-production blur effects, the style of Instagram struck me as annoying and unconvincing. They were sharply pre-faded jeans, notebooks that came with doodles printed on the cover, or t-shirts that are sold wrinkled: it was the pre-packaging of personality. My sudden adoption of instant film as a passion was just as fake, sure, but no one had to know that. Instagram was not only obviously fake, it was proud of it, allowing you to imbue a level of personality that wasn't even possible on regular analog cameras. Retro pictures used to imply something. A certain appreciation for the past, an imagined artsiness, or an obnoxious counter culturalness. It required some luck and investment. Now you just need an app.
I still don't have an Instagram account, but I don't hate it anymore. A lot of people I admire are down with it, and I can't bring myself to be this riduculous for an extended amount of time. I have more or less made peace with my shitty ways. I also realized that it would only a matter of time before Instagram's massive popularity lead to its demise.
The thing about prepackaged personality, about readymade character, is that its scarcity is what made it cool. While it can ride a wave of popularity for a while, all waves must crest. When elected officials start sending out instagrammed pictures, that has to be equivalent to your dad wearing a backwards hat for the first time and asking you about "Iced Cube." When art becomes easy and accesible, it spurs people to move on. Brian Eno, a name synonymous with ambient music, started to venture toward traditional songwriting because, "it's the only challenge left." In an age when you can make ambient music by holding down a key, he found that he had to move forward. Trail blazers find new ground, or neglected old ground, to imbue with coolness.
Instagram is a service that relies on the capital of coolness, and eventually, its fortunes will run dry. All a cliche really is is something that was once cool and powerful that is rendered meaningless through overuse. Phrases like "broken heart" or "mad as hell" were once powerful, creative ways to express something. Today, they have become such standard parts of language that we don't even give it a thought when someone says them. If it continues to be the social media juggernaut that it currently is, our default idea of online photography will become the filtered facade of Instagram and it will finally lose all power.