Recently I wrote about the beginning of the “post-social media” era, explaining how social media as we have gotten to know it has peaked and has to radically change.
The most significant player of this new period that we are entering is, I’d argue, Instagram. The Facebook-owned social network currently does the best job of all competing services in satisfying people’s natural desire to connect with others while not turning into a haven for trolls, troublemakers, junk news distributors, propagandists and disinformation professionals (at least not more than what is inevitable for this type of app).
My positive stance about Instagram has been reinforced during a current trip to Indonesia, from which I return with a sizeable number of new local Instagram contacts. Based on my recent experiences during this and other travels, the service has turned into the worldwide go-to social network through which people seamlessly and casually connect with other people who they meet in various circumstances. Let me give a couple of examples from my current trip:
A couple of days ago, I walked through Indonesia’s fourth biggest city Bandung and was independently of each other approached by two groups of students who were tasked to interview tourists for an assignment. I agreed both times to participate. After the second group had all the answers from me, one of the girls asked me if I have Instagram. I typed my username into her phone. Shortly after, her fellow students had followed me as well. They shared a photo from our interview in an Instagram Story and tagged me. I already suspected that both groups study at the same University and knew each other. Indeed, soon the students from earlier had seen the Story, too, and were adding and messaging me. All of a sudden, I had access to various Instagram Stories from locals, offering me a glimpse into the culture and life style. This and the subsequent interactions through Instagram’s direct messaging feature augmented my stay in the city nicely.
A few days earlier, similar outcome: I started to chat with a guy at a fast food restaurant while waiting in line (I personally have not experienced any other culture in which people are so keen on striking up conversations in English). While saying goodbye, we followed each other on Instagram.
And then there also was this slightly strange situation when a flight attendant from a domestic flight I took suddenly followed me on Instagram, claiming he found me in the explore section. While I was a bit unsure about his intentions, even here Instagram was the channel of choice.
That it was always Instagram which was used for digitally connecting instead of another channel, doesn’t surprise at all if you consider the range of theoretical alternatives:
- “Could I have your phone number?”: Sounds intrusive and unless someone is looking for a flirt, no one would call or send a message to a stranger one just met anyway.
- “Can I add you on WhatsApp?”: This is a more elegant and accepted way to ask for the phone number, as connecting on WhatsApp is considered innocuous. However, one would still have to keep the number in one’s smartphone contact list. WhatsApp’s Stories feature is not widely used, and without the interactive element, the chances that one would end up chatting is small.
- “Can I add you on Facebook?”: In 2017, asking for Facebook means revealing a slightly old school mindset. It certainly is an option to connect on Facebook, especially if one uses it as a personal contact database. Yet, for those who are not spending a lot of time with Facebook anymore, it doesn’t make too much sense to grow one’s contact list there.
- “What’s your Twitter handle?”: Outside of the tech and media industry, not many people actively use Twitter. Furthermore, due to the service’s catering to impulsiveness and primal behavioral patterns, it tends to bring out the worst in people (with the exception of professional use cases).
- “Can I add you on Snapchat?”: Sure, that would work – provided that the person actually uses Snapchat, which is far from guaranteed outside of its geographical core markets and outside of the core demographic group (13 to 25 years).
- “Can I add you on LinkedIn”?: That’s valid to ask in a professional context, but you’ll laugh at yourself realizing how silly this sounds if asked in a more leisure-focused conversation.
- “Can we exchange email addresses?”: Yeah, right. Unless we are talking about people belonging to older generations, if anyone would suggest this, it’s obvious that he/she is not really interested in actually staying in touch.
Instagram clearly has a couple of major advantages here: It has a global reach and is neither too niche nor too new nor on the verge of getting out of fashion. The user base is comprised of many different sociodemographic groups from around the globe. Following someone on Instagram is a casual procedure that involves little effort and that, generally speaking, doesn’t count as a privacy violation (although of course, there might be cases in which different rules apply). Also, the annoyance level of Instagram is, in my eyes at least, comparatively low. And if I want to unfollow some people, they probably won’t notice because unlike with Twitter, an Instagram profile doesn’t tell you whether the user is following you or not.
In a recent study, Instagram has been shown to have particularly negative effects on the mental health of teenagers. I don’t experience this but I am not part of this age group. My little song of praise for Instagram should not imply that there are no problems with the service or with the fact that it bluntly copies everything that works for Snapchat (although that is a larger, more philosophical debate). With this text I am just focusing on the positive aspect of Instagram – the beauty of being able to connect beyond one’s usual filter bubble and to have a social network in your pocket which lets you stay in touch with interesting people that you run into without hassle or intrusions, whether at home or while traveling.
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