There's going to be a time when we'll look back at all the photos we took with Instagram and be embarrassed. Not for the thousand identical shots of our dogs sleeping or blurry plates of food that we will never, ever care to look at again, but because of the "retro" image filters that we lathered on them. Literally any minute now they are going to start looking very, very cheesy. Sutro is the puffy glitter paint, and tilt-shift lens blur is the grungy ink-splatter of our time.
As a designer and image-maker, I recoil at tarting up our photos with some trendy, stock set of effects. They became gross and overused the minute the developer built them into the tool.
And I probably resent it slightly too - color-grading is a trick designers have always had for enhancing photos. With tastes flexed from a knowledge of aesthetics and the skills needed to use the complex tools, it's a service we were able to provide that added value to our vocation - and now anyone with a smartphone can just drunkenly mash a button and accomplish the same effects (Another example of software eating everything, including design).
Here's the thing, though. From the perspective of a user-experience designer trying to build services and interfaces that people want to use, Instagram's filters are brilliant, and I think far more important to the success of the platform than people might realize.
Interactivity requires participation. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of photo-sharing services on the net. It's tautological, but the thing that makes any of them a success is that people use them. How do you get people to take pictures, post them and share them with their friends? First make the process as well-designed, easy and pleasurable as possible, of course, but what else?
What about the psychology of exposing what is both a public work of art and a private memory to a potentially judgmental audience, ready to call you out for being arty or pretentious? "Who do you think you are, Nan-freakin-Golden?," said no one, ever, probably, but you know what I mean. Social media has busted the spigot on communicating anything and everything to the world, but think about how quickly you clam up when someone points a video camera at you and says, "Say something funny."
With filters, Instagram brakes down those barriers in a few ways. First, it democratizes photography so that the worst photo and the best photo aren't all that far apart from each other. Second, that purplish blur puts a distance between the picture you take and the picture you submit, giving you a safe place to hide from the decision to publish. It's a free license to be arty.
Lastly, Instagram's filters make any photo look cool with you as the creator supplying neither choice nor skill nor effort to achieve that outcome. Like throwing a basketball over your head and hitting the basket, it feels good to accomplish things, even if you, yourself, made a questionable contribution to the achievement.
I think the overriding theme of our time is the open abandonment of individual choice and tastes. I want to say more about this some day, but this is one tiny example. Say what you will about artistic legitimacy, by taking away the risk of making something that looks crappy it also takes away the fear, and fear has been a huge obstruction to new technologies like social media. A platform that makes its users automatically funny, talented and artistic will have obvious, enormous appeal.
And while it may give designers something to be depressed about, another thing Instagram teaches us is how important it is that stuff looks cool. And soon, when those filters start getting a little too ripe, we're going to have to step in and dig up something fresh.