This week: Instagram is loving nature to death and a recap of last year’s Instagram stories. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
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Introduction: This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay let's roll.
Sandra: Kai and I are on semester break. This week we have a pre-recorded story for you: Instagram is loving nature to death and we'll take the opportunity to revisit some of the other stories we've done this year on Instagram. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai what happened in the future this week?
Kai: So I was likely at the beach this week but luckily we have pre-recorded this story which is from The Outline - it is titled "Instagram is loving nature to death" and it basically talks about what they call the Instagram nature phenomenon where people go to certain places in nature, the place featured in this article is Horseshoe Bend in the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Colorado River, which saw about a thousand people a year visiting before the thing became famous on Instagram. And this has led to a craze where the place now sees 4000 people coming through every day. Sandra you've been to Horseshoe Bend - what is it like?
Sandra: So I have actually been there seven years ago which was the time when you had probably a thousand people a year. It was absolutely gorgeous. There's a short walk to get there but there were no people, there were no tracks. You end up on a rim and look down on this a 180 degree turn that the Colorado River makes through a very deep canyon and you're sitting on top of the rim and looking down on this completely pristine place in the world with no people, no cameras, no cars, no nothing.
Kai: Except now they are building a big car park, a viewing platform, because the place just can't cope with the amount of people that is coming through every day. All of which want to get a slice of the pristine nature and quietness of this place right?
Sandra: Yes I won't be going back anytime soon it seems. It's sad in a way to think that I will never be able to have that experience again but people will have different experiences of this place. We think this is a good example of something that we've discussed previously on The Future, This Week.
Kai: And we will recap those stories and put them in after this one. The way in which certain trends appear on Instagram be it crazy food and restaurants, going to nice places, doing selfies in certain locations which given the sheer size and social nature of Instagram then lead to this mass influx of people into these places. So something that starts out as special and unique and authentic turns into a mass phenomenon with quite significant ramifications for those places, some of which are good when it leads to more tourism to places that then benefits from people coming through or in these instances what used to be pristine places in nature being overrun with tourists that all come to do this unique selfie in this place.
Sandra: And also a huge burden on for instance in this case The, I'm guessing, National Parks Association or whoever is responsible for building, policing, maintaining, cleaning these places. A lot of money that hasn't been budgeted for and that will need to be spent to upgrade the infrastructure, to upgrade security in these places, to service them and so on.
Kai: And the article speaks quite deliberately about human waste. We could say...
Kai:...that is being left behind in these places. And that just creates lots of problems in cleaning up.
Sandra: There's another story I briefly want to bring up from the Smithsonian Magazine which looked at how Instagram is changing the way in which we design cultural spaces. And in addition to this story about how Instagram is changing secluded spots in nature which now see tens of thousands of visitors every year, the same thing is happening to places like George Town in Malaysia which has long had tourists on its streets with coloured little shop houses, and intricate little streets, and courtyards, temples and mosques that have always been good for photography but in recent years dozens and dozens of street art and murals have started to appear in these cities and have started to become the Instagrammable places that again have brought thousands and thousands of tourists.
Kai: So in the case of cities a new phenomenon that has popped up is pop-up urbanism, a term coined by Michiel de Lange a professor of New Media Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who basically says that cities increasingly use Instagram and events that they create to brand themselves via visual storytelling. So for example creating temporary beer gardens in empty lots or turning a busy street into a pedestrian playground for a weekend, creating artificial beaches in the city centre. All of these kind of things that create events that are special, out of the ordinary, but are instantly Instagrammable because they look good in photos and they have this aura of the special about them.
Sandra: And whilst being Instagrammable can actually lead to some interesting experiences or interesting art installations or new visual landscape, there is a problem with the Instagrammisation of the world and in the case of cities that problem is the one with homogeneity, the fact that all restaurants and all street corners there's graffiti everywhere, they're all trying to look the same so you end up with places in George Town Malaysia that look exactly like streets somewhere in downtown Manhattan. In the case of nature however that can lead to even bigger problems.
Kai: Although in the case of cities that's not really a new Instagram phenomenon right because if I look at inner city shopping precincts they all look the same anyway because you find the same brands all over the world. So Instagram is just another quality of globalisation that leads to a unification of experiences that look the same everywhere because people from all over the world connect on this one platform. In the case of nature however the effects can be much more devastating because the interest of all these people often lead to the destruction of the very thing that people were interested in in the first place which is the pristine nature of nature and...
Sandra:...the isolation, the fact that some of these places are really secluded and hard to get to and not accessible as an everyday experience.
Kai: And off the beaten track.
Sandra: There was virtually no track.
Kai: Now there's a carpark.
Sandra: And whilst this is all we have time for now as we are still on a break we want to recap two of our previous stories where we touched upon the effects of Instagram and of practices that go on top of Instagram.
Audio: The Future, This Week.
Kai: Instagram. The article we referring to is in the New York Times on the 3rd of May. It's titled "That solo travel blogger? She just wants a vacation". So the article portrays a travel blogger by the name of Kiersten Rich who runs a blog the blonde abroad in which she portrays her travels to foreign countries, photographs herself and post these blogs and stories and photographs to her 350,000 monthly readers. So she's travelling all over the place and has a story online.
Sandra: We're talking about this because this is actually a business. This sounds like a lifestyle blogger on first take. Instagram my beautiful life on Instagram. But yet this is a real business right. She employs quite a number of people to do this, receive sponsorships from a wide variety of companies so there's an entire business model behind this.
Kai: Yes so when you read the blog and the Instagram it looks like someone just documenting all the great travel that they do, having fun along the way and living the good life. But if you look behind this venture, there's eight people employed. There's money being made and the travel is all paid for. So in fact the travel that she does is a great way for destinations to market themselves so they usually pay for her to come to go to local attraction.
Sandra: To have authentic experiences?
Kai: Yes have authentic pre-scripted experiences, document on photographs and post this to her followers.
Sandra: So how did this all start out? And this takes us back to an earlier article in The New Yorker that spoke about hashtag 'van life' and this whole idea of documenting your life 'the van life community' and way of living began to take off a few years ago thanks to a guy called Foster Huntington who created this Instagram hashtag after quitting his corporate job in Manhattan. About six or seven years ago. So that he could buy a van and live his life as a nomad, have the travels, not the lifestyle travel that we see with this blogger, but again go around the world and for years document his life on the road, inspire others to leave their lives and take to the open road and have rich experiences.
Kai: We're talking the beautiful old Volkswagen vans here that these people take to the streets to the roads with. And there's a whole movement of people roaming mostly the coastal strips to photograph themselves surfing and having fun at the beach and living the good life, living in this van and portraying this great lifestyle away from the daily grind of the office work that most of these people have left behind. But how does it all work?
Sandra: Well there's a very well documented business model behind it, a wide variety of advertisers pay these people that have strong online following to showcase their products or advertise...
Kai:...Or talk about their services or you know advertise for a movie, have a nice decal on your laptop that is unassumingly placed in the picture. So it's basically a form of sponsorship and product placement so that these people while they go about living their enviable life...
Sandra: But not openly so. No one says this is actually a sponsored...
Kai: No but these people surround themselves with these products and sometimes they comment on you know how great a product is but it's very unassuming, it's very low key. But apparently it works.
Sandra: It works because some of these photos that look so impromptu so spur of the moment have taken hours to actually take the right shot have been released at exactly the right time during the day when the advertisers themselves know it will get most impact and it will get re-tweeted most, or liked most, of re-shared on social media most.
Kai: So ironically living the enviable life turns out to be hard work...
Sandra:...Really hard work.
Kai: So here's a quote from The New Yorker article. "King was fretful about the delay. Sponsors were clamoring for posts. We really need to create content she said. And that's hard to do in this concrete jungle." So this is just an example of the kind of pressure that these people are feeling that they have to constantly go to nice places, pose for photos produce content and post this to their followers because engagement has to be continuous. The way in which Instagram is nowadays working with these algorithms is that if you drop off and you don't produce content next time you create content you won't show up in the follower feed so you really have an incentive to continuously produce content and content of the kind that engages your audience. So these people really look at what gets likes all these metrics what is the kind of content that gets us likes that gets us engagement and then they produce more of that content. So it turns out that living this good life really becomes a way of satisfying an audience.
Sandra: And for advertisers this is actually the Holy Grail. You're producing content all the time. There is no downtime and you're also producing content that is not overtly advertising, its authentic life where the product just shows up somewhere in the background.
Kai: And we're talking a 500 million dollar industry in 2015 which is supposed to grow to 5 billion dollars by 2020. And the key word here is micro influences. So advertisers are really interested not in those big name celebrities but...
Sandra: That's always been the case - big name celebrity, right? This is not something new.
Kai: Nothing new. Well we're talking here people in a kind of mid-range that have about 50,000 to 200,000 - 300,000 followers which congregate around certain lifestyles, certain topics where you have a followership that really identifies with a certain way of living that products then can target.
Sandra: So teenage fashion bloggers or people who race drones or people with particularly photogenic cats, dogs, hamsters...
Kai:...Or people constantly travelling and living the so-called authentic good life that turns out be such hard work.
Sandra: Yes and this wonderful life always portrays the beautiful sunset field of poppies views never the ugly sides of this. The hours spent fixing your busted up van or the two hours you've spent in the poppy field half naked trying to take that shot.
Kai: The fight that you have with your partner living on two square meters with all kinds of rubbish in the van.
Sandra: Or the two hours you spent on the beach trying to take that perfect picture with sand just right, glistening in the sunset.
Kai: Hashtag shit life. But why is the audience so fascinated with this content. Right. So one hypothesis would be that people who are actually in the daily office grind they look at this and they sort of live vicariously the kind of life that they might aspire to but not actually get to live. And that supposedly makes them feel better but that's not even the case.
Sandra: That's really not the case because what we've learned from research and there's some research from the Oxford Internet Institute that shows that Instagram actually made users feel 11 percent worse about their lives than any other social media platforms. Perhaps just because of this because it actually gives people this filtered version of everybody else that look real feel real but are actually more false than anything else.
Kai: Yes. Or you look at this all day and then you look at your own life and it just makes you feel miserable that you are in the office while these people live the perfect life. The irony of course is that they are in an equally daily grind to produce content for their audiences. And so no one really lives the good life here. So what's the point?
Sandra: I don't know but it raises some really good questions about things like authenticity. Instagram is meant to be this intimate place where you show the most hidden corners of your life and you expose them. But if authenticity is recalibrated by these business models to be not real but the reality that a handful of people put together for you so that it seems real, what are the chances of people who want to portray their real real lives?
Kai: Yeah I think for a lot of these travel bloggers or the van life movement I think people start out living this life and then it turns out that no one can actually live this life unless they have a sizable nest egg that they can suck up in the proceeds. Because people have to somehow earn a living and sustain themselves. And so working part time as this couple in this article has done and trying to be connected to the Internet and do some web development work didn't quite work. So they took to sponsorship and marketing and product placement and then that takes its own dynamics. I think the irony is that portraying authenticity in a continuous stream of content produced for an audience is just probably not possible because you lose that very authenticity the moment you try to play to the taste of an audience.
Sandra: And this leads to photos that quite often look staged that look really...
Sandra:...And leads to some wonderful parody accounts with Barbie mid-west Barbie posing in a variety of different classical Instagram-able locations.
Kai: There's another Instagram post of the name of Celeste Barber who restages celebrity photos and you know look it basically shows what these photos would look like if an ordinary person were to pose in these poses. Or my favourite which directly plays on the whole van live movement, an Instagram account called "you did not sleep there" which collects all these photos from travel blogs where people supposedly slept in these outrageous locations far away islands, overhanging rocks, rainforests with dangerous animal creatures and all these kind of places where the account pokes fun of.
Sandra: So we got to this story because of the business models that grow on top of things like Instagram.
Kai: Yes my name for this would be a colonising practice and we see this in other parts of life quite often. So in this case you have people travelling and they then do Instagram on top of this immediate advertising practice grows. But there comes a point where the actual travel is only organised to satisfy the needs of sponsors and an audience and it crowds out what actually was fun about it beforehand. And we see this in other places like horse racing used to be a sport organised for pleasure. And while there certainly some people still in this industry who take pleasure in racing horses, it's really the betting practice that now drives the organisation of horse races for the sole purpose so that people can bet on them. Sport is more and more organised to comply with the needs of television audiences and even in universities we see that the need to innovate and create products and commercialise research is now driving the way research is organised which means that fundamental or basic research is constantly under threat from the innovation practice which wants more products being produced and we are being asked to think of our audiences as research users. And so universities find it more and more hard to resist the trend that innovation drives research. So I think that this is something that we commonly see in various industries. And I think it's very important that a balance is being struck between keeping the original practice and keeping what made that practice fun for the people who were in this practice and satisfying the other practice that sits on top of the original one.
Sandra: So you don't kill off the host.
Kai: That's right. Otherwise we come to a situation where the practice that sort of sits on top acts more like a virus that might kill off the host and in the process loses what made it viable in the first place. If you get rid of basic research there won't be anything to commercialise and innovate with.
Sandra: So the danger is about redefining what real is, in the case of Instagram? Or what authentic is? Or in the case of research what good is?
Kai: What good research is rather than commercialise research. So I think this is an interesting and colourful example of something that we see quite often in various hearts of life and business in more general terms.
Audio: The Future, This Week
Sandra: So this story is from The Ringer, and it asks can real life compete with the Instagram playground and it highlights places like the Museum of Ice Cream or the Paul Smith Pink Wall which provide the perfect drops for these highly crafted, highly authentic in quotes Instagram experiences.
Kai: So it talks about a new phenomenon. Places that are built mainly as backdrops for Instagram, for people to come in and photograph themselves in these spaces to then post to their Instagram accounts.
Sandra: The Instagram experience didn't start out like that so for instance the Paul Smith Pink Wall...
Kai: ...is a genuine shop...
Sandra: ...and it was created way before Instagram was even an app.
Kai: It is used in the article as an example of a perfectly Instagramable place which has inspired a lot of new colourful and playful spaces that cater exclusively to the audience who want to photograph themselves in exclusive, unique, authentic situations. The irony of which is of course that they create these streams of people pouring in to these locations to all do the same thing basically. Then it often starts out by engaging celebrities in the first instance to then motivate the crowds to come in and queue up and do the same thing.
Sandra: What makes a good Instagramable place?
Kai: Interestingly the article actually talks about what these spaces that cater for Instagram should look like and we find it quite interesting that they have a lot of paradoxical elements. So for example they should be highly exclusive.
Sandra: Yeah really accessible.
Kai: So everyone should be able to go in there. Of course they need to be brand new.
Sandra: Yet everybody should know about them.
Kai: Spaces like this should be able to accommodate everyone.
Sandra: Yet really create the illusion of being alone.
Kai: Obviously they have to look good in a selfie.
Sandra: Yet be big enough to accommodate huge crowds of people.
Kai: They have to look really cool.
Sandra: Yet be able to blend in the background.
Kai: And they have to be unique of course.
Sandra: Yet to provide a repeatable experience.
Kai: So these spaces really should give the individual a backdrop to express their very own authenticity.
Sandra: An authenticity that everyone else can share.
Kai: That's right. Which ironically is a mass phenomenon. So let's discuss the notion of authenticity here, because it's one of those things where Instagrammers can smell when a place is trying too hard and is being inauthentic and not suitable as an Instagramable place.
Sandra: In the very beginning Instagram used to be tied directly to this idea of a human experience in a particular place. So if we go back to the very beginning, Instagram was an app called "Burbn" from the drink but spelled differently. And this app would really allow you to check in at a particular location and make some plans around that location, hang out with friends and also post pictures of these meet ups. As the iPhone camera got invented the app creators discovered that actually the posting and sharing of photography were really the thing that people were using most. And they pivoted towards developing the app that now is called Instagram. That would only share photography and made that really simple. And the photographs that were initially shared were photographs that were directly linked to some sort of personal experience in a particular place.
Kai: Often a fairly informal documentation of what people would be doing to collect in a stream, a visual narrative of one's life.
Sandra: And they were linked to a family trip or a dinner with friends or a wedding reception or a morning coffee. Now they have been disconnected from the actual experience and authenticity became the picture itself.
Kai: So over time a certain aesthetic emerged around Instagram photography and people really got obsessed with what those pictures looked like rather than necessarily what they showed. So it is now very important that Instagram pictures are really pretty. They're really beautiful so people spend a lot of time creating the perfect Instagram picture. It has become a certain genre of photography but in the process creating those pictures has become kind of an end in itself.
Sandra: So really what this has led to is a professionalisation of Instagram and this is something that we have touched upon before when we did our episode on #VANLIFE.
Kai: Yes the way in which you know certain practices such as advertising colonise other practices and crowd out what they were about initially.
Sandra: What we have now with Instagram is an entire industry complete with interior designers, food designers, beauty experts, models, all these people who create the Instagram-look.
Kai: Restaurants that create food as Instagramable experiences. There's now restaurants where you can book the Instagram table that comes with great LED lighting to create the perfect scenery to photograph your food. There's restaurants in New York that hand out Instagram kits complete with LED lighting and selfie stick and backdrop for your food to really look good in those Instagram photos.
Sandra: You can get makeup that will give you the Instagram face.
Kai: Or as the article puts it "the whole world starts looking like an Instagram ad". But seriously what is happening now is that there is an industry that caters for Instagraming as a thing in itself. So there's places that are built solely to attract Instagrammers that would then come in, photograph the place, provide free advertising for more users to come in to then do exactly the same. And that's what it's all about.
Sandra: So really what we're seeing is an interesting interplay between on the one hand the democratisation that the platform like Instagram affords - we can all participate in this photo sharing and then with the professionalisation of the platform really a lot of the power being drawn away from the users and the users become the ones that are being used.
Kai: Yeah. So what tends to happen then is that some users get caught up in this rat race right. You're chasing these authentic experiences but you're not really being authentic because you're posting to comply with what Instagram requires in terms of aesthetic. While the original, more informal unscripted sharing of photographs moves on to other platforms and we're seeing this with the launch of Snapchat that has now taken over some of that posting which is now also already undergoing this professionalisation with more businesses streaming into that place.
Sandra: So really when this happens there are only two choices. And Instagram's CEO also recognises that there is this pressure on users to comply with the aesthetic of Instagram and with the need to have high quality postings. So on the one hand users as you mentioned have moved to other platforms or we see users posting on multiple platforms, posting on Instagram but also sharing off Snapchat or on Facebook or on other platforms where they feel they might keep all the photographs. Or we're seeing companies like Instagram attempting to provide new services that try to reintroduce some of that authenticity.
Kai: Recapture, rekindle some of that authenticity such as with the "stories" feature.
Sandra: So another one that we'll keep an eye on.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights' team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss please send them to email@example.com.