Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m killing it today’?
Well, you wouldn’t be the only one. According to the data representation site infogr.am, 1 million selfies are taken globally each day by 18 to 24 year olds and over 58 million photos have been posted with the hashtag #selfie on Instagram. But when did this selfie revolution begin? And why do we take so many selfies? The answer may be more complicated than you think.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. And if the people of Rochester, USA knew the value of anything, it was that of a picture. As the global headquarters of the Eastman Kodak Corporation, pictures were to Rochester what cars once were to Detroit or what the Internet is today to Silicon Valley. Known as “the World’s Image Center” and “Snapshot City,” Rochester had built its prosperity on the many millions of “Kodak moments” captured by all of us over the last 125 years. “You press the button, we do the rest,” Kodak’s founder, George Eastman, promised when he introduced his first handheld camera in 1888. And that’s exactly what we all did throughout the industrial age—press the button on our Kodak cameras and rely on high quality Kodak film and Kodak imaging and processing services to do the rest. We paid for all this, of course—exchanging cash for the developed photographs that then became our property. And so for more than a century, millions of Kodak moments had made Rochester wealthy and famous. But now a darker kind of Kodak moment had transformed Rochester from the World’s Image Center into a picture of failure.
Kodak’s control of the global picture business had enriched the city with the brightest colors of all: a thriving local economy and tens of thousands of well-paying jobs. We haven’t stopped taking pictures. The problem is actually the reverse. We took 350 billion snaps in 2011 and an astonishing 1.5 trillion in 2013—more than all the photos ever taken before in all of history. “Pictures are more sexy than words,” explains Joshua Chuang, the curator at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography. “I snap therefore I am,” adds the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman, about a culture in which we are using our camera phones so obsessively that if just the 125 billion photos captured in the United States in 2013 were turned into four-by-six prints, they would extend to the moon and back twenty-five times.
The saddest thing of all about Rochester is that the more photos we take, the fewer jobs there are in Snap City. In the 1990s, Kodak controlled 90% of the film sales and 85% of the camera sales in the United States. Twenty-five years later, Kodak halted the manufacture of its Kodachrome film, ending a seventy-four-year history of production. And in September 2013, a few months before my arrival in Rochester, an emaciated Kodak emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy having sold the vast majority of its assets and laid off most of its employees.
So what happened? It begins with a story about one wannabee Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
In the summer of 2010, Kevin Systrom, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, took a trip with his girlfriend to Mexico. Despite graduating from Stanford with an engineering degree and having worked at Google for three years, the 27 year old considered himself a failure. Kevin had moved to Silicon Valley to, as he so bluntly put it ‘get rich really quickly’. But he’d yet to make the kind of money that Zuckerburg had made from Facebook or that Larry Page or Sergey Brin had made from Google.
Systrom had missed two opportunities to develop photo sharing systems for the, at the time, startup ‘TheFacebook’ and Odeo, the San Francisco-based startup that would eventually hatch into Twitter. He had a startup called Burbn, an online check-in service backed by Andreessen Horowitz, a private American venture capital firm. But there was little about Burbn in the summer of 2010 that distinguished it from market leaders like Foursquare. Systrom’s pivot was to reinvent Burbn as a social photography-sharing app—a kind of Flickr meets Foursquare meets Facebook app designed exclusively for mobile devices. And it was on a Mexican beach in the summer of 2010 that he made his great breakthrough. Systrom decided to share his new idea with his girlfriend on a summer’s evening on a beach in Mexico. As they walked hand in hand together beside the Pacific Ocean, Systrom began pitching her on the idea of a social network built around photographs taken from smartphone cameras. But she pushed back, saying that she didn’t have sufficient faith in her creative skills to share her mobile photos with friends. It was then that he had his ‘aha’ moment, the kind of alchemic epiphany that transformed a serial failure who’d missed two great opportunities at Facebook and Twitter into the next Zuckerburg.
What if the app featured filters? he thought. What if it enabled users to create warm and fuzzy photos, the sort of photos that appeared retro and more analogue than the photographs that had been taken on smartphones up until that point? And what if this personalized technology was engineered to operate so intimately on mobile devices that users not only intuitively trusted the social app but also believed that they somehow owned it? And so Instagram and its photos—what Systrom, shamelessly appropriating Kodak’s phrase, calls “Instagram moments”—were born. With fuzzily named filters like X-Pro II, Hefe, and Toaster, this free mobile network became an instant viral hit. The scale and speed of its success was astonishing. Twenty-five thousand iPhone users downloaded the app when it launched on October 6, 2010. A month later, Systrom’s startup had a million members. By early 2012, as the writing on the Eastman House wall reminds us, it had 14 million users and hosted a billion Instagram moments.
And like Eastman’s late-nineteenth-century startup, Kodak, Systrom’s early-twenty-first-century photo network has imprinted itself on our everyday lives. The Instagram moment has replaced the Kodak moment. Not a bad return-on-investment from a day spent swinging in a hammock on a Mexican beach. But the benefits of Instagram for the rest of us are about as foggy as one of Instagram’s Hefe or Toaster filters. “Instagram is focused on capturing the world’s moments,” Systrom likes to say. But that’s a fiction—just like Instagram itself. In contrast with Kodachrome, a film stock dedicated to sharp-detailed, grain-free images, Instagram’s value is its graininess—designed, as the New York Times’ Alex Williams explains, to make “everyone look a little younger, a bit prettier, more cover-worthy.”
Whoever first said that “the camera never lies” had obviously never used Instagram. If Kodachrome was designed as an unsparingly honest window, then Instagram is its reverse, a complimentary mirror “where,” as Sarah Nicole Prickett, writing in the New York Times, observes, “the grass looks greener.” That’s its greatest seduction. So rather than accurately capturing the world’s moments in all their colorful complexity, Instagram —“the highest achievement in Internet voyeurism,” according to Alex Williams, and “the app built to make you covet your neighbor’s life,” as Prickett puts it—is actually creating what Williams, citing the title of a 1959 work by Norman Mailer, calls “Advertisements for Myself.” Social networks like Instagram can’t, of course, be entirely blamed for this epidemic of narcissism and voyeurism now afflicting our culture. As the work of prominent American psychologists like Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell, and Elias Aboujaoude indicates, our contemporary obsession with public self-expression has complex cultural, technological, and psychological origins that can’t be exclusively traced to the digital revolution.
Nor is Instagram alone in crossing this narcissism line. There’s also Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and the rest of a seemingly endless mirrored hall of social networks, apps, and platforms stoking our selfie-centered delusions. Indeed, in an economy driven by innovator’s disasters, new social apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Snapchat—a photo-sharing site that, in November 2013, turned down an all-cash acquisition offer of more than $3 billion from Facebook—are already challenging Instagram’s dominance. For us, however, Instagram—whether or not it remains the “second plotline” of the networked generation—is a useful symbol of everything that has gone wrong with our digital culture over the last quarter of a century. “I update, therefore I am,” I once wrote, half jokingly, about the existential dilemma created by our obsession with social media. And yet, for all its sad narcissistic inanity and even sadder existential angst, it would be a mistake to see Instagram’s problems in primarily cultural terms. Selfie culture is a big enough lie, but it’s actually billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs less dishonest than the economics of selfie culture. And it’s here—in the realm of jobs, wages, and profit—that we can find the most disturbing implications of the shift from the Kodak to the Instagram moment.
Instagram had just thirteen full-time employees when Facebook paid a billion dollars for the startup. Meanwhile, Kodak was closing 13 factories and 130 photo labs and laying off 47,000 workers. And these thousands of Kodak employees weren’t the only professional victims of selfie economics. Professional photographers have been badly hit, too. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of professional photographers, artists, and photographers working on American newspapers fell from 6.171 to 3,493—a 43% drop at a time when pictures have become “more sexy” than words and we are taking trillions of photos a year.
So who, exactly, is doing the work, providing all the labor, in a billion-dollar startup that employed only thirteen people? We are. All 150 million of us are members of the new Snap Nation. Kevin Systrom’s creation is the quintessential data factory of our new digital economy. In contrast with the old industrial factory—that former skyscraper, on the corner of Factory and State in downtown Rochester—these twenty-first-century factories are as ubiquitous as selfies, existing wherever there is a networked device. You may be reading this on one right now. You almost certainly have one in your pocket or on your desk. And it’s our labor on these little devices—our incessant tweeting, posting, searching, updating, reviewing, commenting, and snapping—that is creating all the value in the networked economy.
So next time you take a selfie, think twice about the jobs you could be destroying.
Neate, “Kodak Falls in the Creative Destruction of the Digital Age.”
“The Last Kodak Moment?,” Economist, January 14, 2012. economist.com/node/21542796/print.
Jason Farago, “Our Kodak Moments—and Creativity—Are Gone,” Guardian, August 23, 2013, theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/23/photography-photography.
Charles Blow, “The Self(ie) Generation,” New York Times, March 7, 2014.
James Franco, “The Meanings of the Selfie,” New York Times, December 26, 2013, nytimes.com/2013/12/29/arts/themeaning-of-the-selfie.html.
Sophie Heawood, “The Selfies at Funerals Tumblr Tells Us a Lot About Death,” Vice.com, November 1, 2013.
Stacy Lambe, “14 Grindr Profile Pics Taken at the Holocaust Memorial,” Buzzfeed, January 31, 2013.
Craig Detweiler, “‘Auschwitz Selfies’ and Crying into the Digital Wilderness,” CNN, July 22, 2014.
Stuart Heritage, “Selfies of 2013—the Best, Worst and Most Revealing,” Guardian, December 22, 2013.
Rachel Maresca, “James Franco Allegedly Attempts to Meet Up with 17-Year-Old Girl via Instagram: Report,” New York Daily News, April 3, 2014.
“Selfie Is Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year,” Guardian, November 18, 2013, theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/19/selfie-word-of-the-year-oed-olinguito-twerk/print.
This number is from the research advisory firm mobileYouth. See Olson, “Teenagers Say Goodbye to Facebook and Hello to Messenger Apps.” Interestingly, the mobileYouth research shows that the proportion of selfies on Snapchat is even higher than 50%.
Steven Johnson is perhaps the most relentlessly optimistic of Web believers. See, for example, his latest book: Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (New York: Riverhead, 2012).
Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
Williams, “The Agony of Instagram.”
Rhiannon Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter, “Smug Shots and Selfies: The Rise of Internet Self-Obsession,” Guardian, December 6, 2013.