Memories are made of Instagram clicks

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 4, 2013

One of my guilty pleasures is looking at life through rose-tinted lenses - quite literally.

When I got a smartphone for the first time, I downloaded the Instagram application out of sheer curiosity. It seemed innocuous enough, a photo-editing tool that could transform my average photograph into something with a more professional veneer.

Instagram comes with 19 preset photo filters, which means instant contrast, colour enhancement, colour balance and faked tilt-shift (for those oh-so-cool fuzzy edges) all rolled into one. A landscape photograph could be made a little grungier, a little more retro, a little more saturated. How lovely, I thought.

Three years later, I am a full-on Instagram addict. I'll admit it. I live life in sepia tones.

While I was waiting for a friend at the void deck of her HDB apartment block several days ago, a stray cat strolled languidly into view and curled up on the floor a few feet away. Almost immediately, I found myself crouched on the ground, angling my phone camera at the animal, which glared at me long enough for me to take the shot, and then promptly got up and stalked away.

A few clicks later, the grumpy cat was delicately backlit, a little creamier in complexion, with a soft halo of light around its head. My Insta-friends loved it.

While cute and fluffy animals garner plenty of likes, a savvy Instagrammer takes the even more mundane and transforms it into "art". A decrepit door in a back alley, a perforated leaf on the ground, one's own feet, existential sunsets whose colours have been altered beyond recognition: all perfect subjects for social networking in pictures.

This culture of visual blogging capitalises both on the current wave of nostalgia for the analogue and a fascination with a physical past that younger digital natives will likely never remember. This movement comes with a generous serving of irony, given that this trend has manifested largely on digital platforms.

It is a business model that has served Instagram well; in April last year, Facebook acquired it for about US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion).

There are plenty of other highly popular photo-editing apps: Hipstamatic, Snapseed and Pixlr-o-matic, just to name a few, which also emulate and replicate that grainy texture of retro photography instantly, skipping out on the process of using actual antique or obsolete film cameras or the darkroom. No need to buy that pricey Lomo or Polaroid. Most of these apps come for free or for a token sum. And if your first photo lacked that perfect composition, nothing to fear - you can just take it again.

In an article published by the Guardian last month, journalist John Naughton wrote: "Andy Warhol used to say that anyone could be famous for 15 minutes; with Instagram, anyone can masquerade as Andy Warhol 15 times a day."

Instagram seems to have gotten that Warholian formula down pat. Its website boasts some pretty impressive statistics: 100 million monthly active users, 40 million photos a day, 8,500 "likes" a second and 1,000 comments a second.

This allure of online popularity plays well into the "Instabrag" equation. Think close-ups of that coveted designer bag or a panoramic glimpse into that luxurious holiday, all suffused in tawny hues of burnt sienna and promptly shared with friends to a chorus of "beautiful!" and "so jealous!". And like Twitter, photographs can "trend" - a reflection of their current popularity.

Just last week, the "Manhattanhenge" urban phenomenon, where the summer sunset aligns perfectly with New York City's concrete grid, led to thousands of avid photographers and Instagrammers choking up street traffic to get that perfect shot of the sun framed between skyscrapers.

We seem to have reduced our social interaction from the era of the e-mail, to the blog, to the Facebook status, to the 140-character Twitter update, and finally to straight-up voyeurism by way of these square snapshots of our lives.

It is an era of celebrity-stalking and overnight celebrities. A Japanese woman taking pictures of her young son and his devoted French bulldog (essentially the equation for adorability) has gained her more than 200,000 followers, myself included.

Childhood just seems that much more magical when fed through shades of golden brown.

And when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joined Instagram last week, one of his first uploads was a selfie (webspeak for a self-portrait) with one of his former platoon mates. That overexposed (photographically speaking) picture of the two grinning men has since garnered more than 270 "likes".

Have we forgotten how to look at our lives, or the lives of others, without the constant negotiation of the camera lens?

One could argue that every picture squeezed through the dislocation of a filter and other editing tools is a form of self-deception, of remembering what we did not actually see. There is also a sort of lazy voyeurism that comes from "liking" a friend's photograph and equating it to some form of personal interaction while never quite having to interact at all.

Sure, Instagram is not as bronzed and beautiful as it makes itself out to be, and more often than not, it is a selective form of memory-making that whitewashes a great deal of life's flaws.

But if anything, it has made looking back at my life a lot prettier.

Oh look, a sunset - I'll be right back.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 4, 2013

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