We know what Facebook sees in Instagram, the photo app it just bought for $1 billion: a firmer grip on your smartphone, and a potential rival for eyeballs that had to be snapped up before someone else got to it. But the popularity of Instagram itself among its 40 million–and–counting users is at first harder to figure. You take your snapshot, then apply a digital filter—the effects range from high-contrast black-and-white to sepia to seventies-Polaroid—to make it look like an old analog print that you can then share with your social networks.
More precisely, you take your pristine high-tech photo and damage it, messing up its tonal balance, vignetting it, discoloring it. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, simple novelty, but novelty passes. The filters (like those on Hipstamatic and other photo apps) also compensate for an amateur shutterbug’s spotty craftsmanship, shifting emphasis from the composition and content to the treatment. But the real draw goes deeper than that. Instagram is tapping the sense—a sense that has almost been lost—that a photograph is itself a precious object.
For a century and a half, a photo was a physical thing: a print, a sheet of negative, a reel of film. You could make copies with a little effort, but if you didn’t want to, and you stowed the single image somewhere, that was it. Each handmade one was, until you decided otherwise, unique. (It was expensive, too. When Polaroid introduced SX-70 film in 1972, it cost $6.90 for ten pictures, or about $38 today.) In the digital realm, a photo is a collection of bits, infinitely replicable, essentially cost-free, and (often) taken with commensurate thought. Any one copy is disposable, especially if the file is stored in the cloud and can be replicated at a moment’s notice. The image may be special, but the object loses its intrinsic value.
What Instagram does is make a photo feel like a one-of-a-kind treasure again. The fading you apply is fake, but it puts you in mind of the childhood snapshot of yourself that your grandmother kept in the living room—and not just the image but the actual print, the memento itself. The square format of Instagram’s images adds to the mystique, evoking the era of the Polaroid SX-70 and the Kodak 126 cartridge, both of which were staples of the seventies, and both of which have given way to rectangular displays like the 35-millimeter frame, the 16:9 high-def TV, and the iPhone and iPad screens. The Instagram filters that make photos most look like Polaroid prints hit a kind of nostalgic trifecta—instant photos, having no separate negative, were virtually irreproducible. If you lost one, you lost the memory that it evoked. That’s of course not true of the Instagram version, but it can start to feel the same way.
It’s worth noting that even as Instagram, with all of thirteen employees, has become a billion-dollar company, old-fashioned film, the kind that inherently makes old-fashioned pictures, has been making a small-scale comeback. Last year, as Kodak rattled down the hill toward bankruptcy, dropping product lines left and right, its shrunken film division was the only one to post a profit. Harman Technology, the parent company of the British black-and-white specialist Ilford Photo, reported in 2011 that film sales were up for the first time in many years. The Impossible Project, the small company that took over Polaroid’s last factory and restarted instant-film production, sold just under a million packs of film (retail price: $21.99 to $28) in 2011. It just may be that Instagram, by reawakening people to the idea that a photo is something to be treasured, has inadvertently helped save an entire medium. Fittingly, the hotshot startup has seen fit to honor its predecessor: In its San Francisco headquarters, an array of vintage Polaroid cameras sits on proud display.