Instant Visual Grammatica
I originally wrote this paper in the spring of 2016, which encompassed a time ever so slightly before Instagram started to integrate short digital videos or Instagram “stories” into the news feed, or scroll. The digital photographs were still just static images and I treated them as such when analyzing Instagram as a medium, or extension, according to McLuhan’s heuristic “Laws of Media.” The analysis is still fresh, which is surprising given the fact that four years in digital time is a long time. Paradoxically, perhaps, reading the essay today may provide the same type of nostalgia that the original Instagram filters sought to induce. Enjoy.
A tetradic analysis of Instagram can be carried out to examine the defining characteristics and digital conventions of both the form and content of this extremely popular social media application. The use of Marshall McLuhan’s “Laws of Media,” which are structured by the application of his tetrad to any medium, provide an insightful synopsis of how Intsagram remediates older media practices into the new media practices of the digital age. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man explores the fundamental characteristics of analog media up to, and including, the electronic media of the 20th century. Laws of Media: The New Science, written by both Marshall and Eric McLuhan, and published eight years after Marshall’s death, further illustrates the practice of tetradic analysis by providing comprehensive examples that facilitate a deeper understanding of the effects and characteristics of all media. Instagram is a software application that runs on both iPhone and Android devices.1 Considering the digital nature of Instagram as a form of new media, Judith A. Nicholson’s essay “The Third Screen as Cultural Form in North America” is consulted. Alice E. Marwick’s essay “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy” provides further context for the contemporary use of Instagram among users of digital media.
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are the creators of Instagram, a photo-sharing social media platform, which was officially launched as an iPhone “app” in October of 2010. By December of 2010 the Instagram community had achieved a user base of one million accounts.2 When Apple released the revamped iPhone 4S in the fall of 2011–which featured the new dual core A-5 chip–an influx of new iPhone customers downloaded the Instagram app, resulting in a massive growth spurt that saw the Instagram community expand to 10 million users world wide.3 Apple reported that 1 million pre-orders had been received for the 4S model within the first 24 hours of an early October press conference, making it the most popular iPhone model to be released as of 2011.4 In fact, in the last quarter of 2011, the birth rate of iPhones exceeded that of human babies born on this planet.5 In April of 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for the price of $1,000,000,000 USD.6
McLuhan’s tetrad, which is synonymously referred to as the “Laws of Media” by communication scholars,7 is essentially a mode of inquiry that asks four simple questions of any medium. Eric McLuhan writes in the Preface to Laws of Media that he and his father developed the tetrad as a response to critics who deemed his father’s methods un-scientific.8 The tetrad analysis allows anyone to prove, or disprove, the Laws of Media, thus lending scientific credibility to the method. The four questions are understood to exist in a state of simultaneity, representing the “all-at-once-ness” of their reciprocal relationships. In Laws of Media, McLuhan and McLuhan illustrate the four questions and describe how they discovered the tetrad:
The tetrad was found by asking, “What general, verifiable (that is, testable) statements can be made about all media?” We were surprised to find only four, here posed as questions:  What does it enhance or intensify?  What does it render obsolete or displace?  What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced?  What does it produce or become when pressed to an extreme?9
McLuhan and Powers cite Nan Lin’s The Study of Human Communication in their book The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, quoting the passage, “the ultimate goal of science is to explain by means of a set of theories, events that are observed.”10 Seeking to attain scientific merit, McLuhan’s tetrad is designed to do just that, specifically by relying on observation and experience.11 While the questions posed by McLuhan’s tetrad have no sequence or order to them because of their simultaneous relationship, for the purpose of writing about them, it is logical to work through the questions in the order that they are presented in Laws of Media.
What does the medium enhance or intensify?
Enhancement is the most obvious characteristic of any medium one chooses to investigate with McLuhan’s tetrad. More often then not, what is enhanced by a medium can be easily identified as the feature that propels the medium into widespread use and acceptance. What does Instagram enhance or intensify? Instagram enables human beings to share digital photographs, captured by smart phone cameras, with other human beings around the world who are connected with each other through the social media network. The speed at which users of Instagram can shoot digital photographs and then edit, crop, and share them, is astounding. Relationships with family, friends, and “online” acquaintances can be intensified by frequent engagement with Instagram. Raymond Williams writes in Television: Technology and Cultural Form:
What can be seen most evidently in the press can be seen also in the development of photography and the motion picture. The photograph is in one sense a popular extension of the portrait, for recognition and for record. But in a period of great mobility, with new separations of families and with internal and external migrations, it became more centrally necessary as a form of maintaining, over distance and through time, certain personal connections.12
Media of all kinds have traditionally had the effect of collapsing time and space, an argument that McLuhan makes throughout Understanding Media.13 With the enhanced mobility provided by smart phones like the Apple iPhone, non-local human relationships can be amplified across great distances when Instagram is used to keep up to date with the social life of friends and family.
In an era of digital communication, digital photographs are being exchanged through Instagram to maintain social connections from a far. Sometimes these digital photographs are used in lieu of long distance phone calls due to their potent ability to relay an abundance of information.14 Even though the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has become a well-worn cliché, images shared through Instagram have a way of communicating time, place, and meaning in a very immediate fashion–more so than words. A case in point is the 140-character limit of the “tweet,” a popular micro-blogging format that takes place on the social media platform of Twitter. In contrast to popular images of a night out with friends, a birthday party, or an obligatory “selfie,” the tweet would require an increase in size of ten fold to relay a similar level of excitement that is provided by the sharing of images on Instagram among friends. The sharing of digital images on mobile devices creates an aesthetic of immediacy that has evolved into the main convention that governs how Instagram operates. The mantra of “anytime anywhere” communication, which has been used to market the smart phone for close to a decade, indicates that the smart phone has become a meaningful form of mobile communication.15 The Instagram community as a whole encourages the capturing of real time events in digital photographs, which is an example of the dominant theme most prevalently found in the content of Instagram. Hashtags like #latergram are used to relay the message that the posting of an image to a users account is not happening in real-time, but, in actuality, carried out after the fact.
What does the medium render obsolete or displace?
Instagram also provides digital photographers with the ability to professionally manipulate images, yet another example of the enhancement characteristic found within the medium. With digital software tools that can crop, filter, and color process images, Instagram can make an average, or even poor, photographer into a great one. Evidence of this can be found in the book of images edited by Bridget Watson Payne, This is Happening: #Life Through the Lens of Instagram. A short untitled poem serves as an introduction to the collection of 198 images submitted by Instagram users from around the world:
We are the users of Instagram and we made this book.
We see something we otherwise might have missed. It makes us happy.
We almost can’t believe our eyes. Is this really happening? Yes! This is happening!
We grab our phones and we shoot.
We make everything dreamy and vintage and beautiful.
We share. We share and share and share.
We commune with people down the hall, and on the other side of the world.
We look. We smile. We laugh. We are astounded.
We maybe even get a little misty-eyed.
We like. Oh, how we like.16
This poem describes many unique characteristics loved by enthusiastic users of Instagram. In fact, the ability to capture moments in time with the digital cameras found in smart phones and subsequently share them with the world via Instagram is exactly what is so amazing about the medium. Intstagram gets people excited about taking photographs for the purpose of sharing them as “moments-in-time” they would otherwise be unable to share without the use of the Instagram app installed on their smart phones.
Obsolescence is the eventual fate of any technology or human artefact. Out with the old and in with the new. Emerging technologies, and especially emerging media, will ultimately end up displacing the dominant forms that have preceded them. What does Instagram render obsolete or displace? Ironically, Facebook–the social media tech giant that purchased Instagram in April of 2012–is displaced from the number one position it previously held as the world’s most popular social media network. Marwick notes that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram is widely viewed by the technology sector as a coup.17 Calling attention to Facebook’s waning popularity and reducing it to nothing more than an “aggregated behemoth of online content,” Marwick writes, “its News Feeds [are] clogged with video game scores, e-commerce purchases, and advertising.”18 Instagram, on the other hand, is thriving. According to information published on the company’s webpage, the user base increased from 150 million in September 2013, to 300 million in December 2014, and then continued to rise in excess of 400 million by September 2015.19
With Instagram installed on so many smart phones, the digital point and shoot cameras that were popular in the 2000s have become obsolete. Moore’s Law, which has guided technological progress in Silicon Valley since the development of the integrated circuit, states that chips get better at an accelerating rate.20 In Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier explores the phenomenon of Moore’s Law at length, which leads him to make the prescient observation, “Yesterday’s unattainably expensive camera becomes just one of today’s throw away features on a phone.”21 Lanier adds further context to the phenomenon of obsolescence taking place within the professional photography industry, writing:
At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people.22
Kodak’s prominence as a leader in the world of film photography was ultimately undone when they invented the digital camera. With Instagram representing the new face of digital photography, professional photographers have also been obsolesced in the wake of the company’s success. Indeed, the 198 images published in This is Happening are all of great quality.23 The inclusion of digital cameras on smart phones conveniently allows an Instagram user to shoot spontaneously, capturing the magic moment as it happens. The novice point and shoot photographer can even side step the finer details of focal length and aperture, and instead, concentrate their energy on producing exciting images for the purpose of sharing them with friends instantaneously over the social media network. The digital image processing included with Instagram makes up for any compromises in resolution, or lighting, allowing the photographer to experiment with their images without worrying about the technical limitations of the medium they are using. Instagram, therefore, obsolesces the many years professional photographers spend perfecting their craft.
What does the medium retrieve that was previously obsolesced?
Retrieval is a characteristic of media where remediation of an older media practice occurs, specifically a practice that has been previously obsolesced. According to Will Straw, remediation is “a process by which the new media come to enclose the old.”24 Straw echoes an observation made by McLuhan in Understanding Media, “This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.”25 What does Instagram retrieve that was previously obsolesced? Instagram retrieves the instantaneous delivery of information from a far–a defining characteristic of the service previously provided by the telegram. Systrom and Krieger were inspired by their love of instant cameras like the Polaroid and Kodak Instamatic and came up with the name Instagram for their company by combining the words “instant” and “telegram.”26 Certain aspects of the Polaroid have been retrieved, remediated by the use of vintage looking filters within Instagram, not to mention the unmistakeable logo used for the app. The nostalgic aesthetic applied by the digital image processing of the various filters retrieves the unmistakable artefacts of analog instamatic photography, with names like Lo-Fi, Walden, Nashville, and 1977, evoking the embedded memories of times past.
Instagram is a visual medium, but there is an irony present when a photographer says “I shot that image with my iPhone.” Telephony has been traditionally used to transmit speech, in effect extending the reach of oral communication. Nicholson is borrowing advertising lingo when she refers to the visual capabilities of mobile phones as “the third screen,” defining it as the screen that comes after TV and the computer.27 With the evolution of digital technology, the smart phone represents a convergence of older mediums that have coalesced into one unit. The smart phone contains the dynamic interactivity of telephony combined with photographic and televisual capabilities. In essence, users of Instagram are retrieving aspects of television viewing practices as they peruse the images shared on the network by the accounts that they follow, which are analogous to broadcasting channels. With the medium of Instagram retrieving aspects of television, celebrity status is unavoidable and comes into the fold by way of Instafame.
Reversal is the most difficult characteristic of McLuhan’s tetrad to identify because it involves an anticipation of the unintended consequences of a new medium before the effects actually happen. After the fact, potential fallout is much easier to identify, but when a new medium is just on the cusp of emerging, it is extremely hard to see beyond the event horizon in order to catch a glimpse of what the new game changing technology may have in store for the dominant paradigm. In the case of the automobile, too much enhancement makes for gridlock, creating a reversal of the mobility it originally offered. What does Instagram produce or become when it is pressed to an extreme? Instagram users risk facing a reversal into extreme narcissism, as well as falling prey to consumerist propaganda and government surveillance.
With a registered user base now exceeding 400 million, Marwick singles out pop stars and television celebrities as the top users of Instagram.28 There is even a chance that some users will achieve Instafame, which Marwick defines as “the condition of having a relatively great number of followers on the app.”29 The premise of Marwick’s entire essay, “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy,” is that Instagram represents a mania for the digital documentation of the visual iconography of mainstream celebrity culture, and that personal accounts are curated in such a way as to allow individuals access to the currency of the attention economy. Evidence of this argument can be seen all over Instagram, from the narcissistic selfies posted by Kim Kardashian, to the legions of teenage girls trying to achieve Instafame by copying the posting styles of well-known celebrities, to the corporate accounts of luxury sports cars, and right on down to popular sneaker manufacturers like Adidas and Nike. When it comes to participatory digital media culture, everyone wants in on the action. The endless quest to attract “likes” and “followers” in a media-saturated and information rich world requires Instagram users to sacrifice privacy in exchange for attention. All one needs to do is reveal personal information a few times a day on an app available to anyone with a smart phone and data plan, and they can be well on their way.30
While McLuhan maintains that in the Greek myth of Narcissus the reflective image in the water was not understood by Narcissus to be his own mirror image, Narcissus none the less became infatuated with the image and died a watery death when he fell into the water in an attempt to get closer to his reflection. McLuhan uses the myth of Narcissus to explain the human obsession with technology in the aptly titled chapter “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” from Understanding Media. All these years later it is still a striking metaphor for contemporary media practices, especially when considering the immense popularity of smart phones and Instagram.
What does the medium produce or become when pressed to an extreme?
Utilizing McLuhan’s tetrad to carry out an analysis of Instagram has proven that the Laws of Media do indeed facilitate a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationships that exist between human beings and their media. Instagram has enhanced an individual’s ability to maintain personal relationships from a far through the sharing of images over the social media network. While enabling inexperienced photographers to produce exciting images, Instagram has obsolesced the relevance of the professional photographer, and has pushed film photography towards the realm of residual media. Instagram has effectively retrieved the unmistakable artefacts of analog instamatic photography, specifically with the digital image processing of the app’s filters. Intstagram’s most popular user accounts feature pop stars and television celebrities, thus remediating the television channel into a new form. The unintended consequences of the app could potentially cause a phase reversal, causing Instagram users to manically sacrifice their privacy in exchange for Instafame.
Cole, Jarrett. “Instant Visual Grammatica.” Winnsox, vol. 1 (2020).