Instagram for Historians

Two weeks ago, I wrote about historians on Twitter–the good and the bad. Twitter is one of the biggest social media platforms worldwide, with 335 million active users. Even bigger is Instagram, with nearly 1 billion active monthly users. Within the billion, smaller communities allow users to engage in more intimate groups.

Screenshots of #historygeek and #historymajor pages on Instagram, with 76.1k posts and 22.5k posts, respectively.
History lovers of all kinds can find like-minded groups on Instagram with hashtags. History geeks have posted 76.1k times, publicly, while history majors have 22.5k public posts.

Sam Han is one of many who have defined the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Community is one of the biggest differences: while Web 1.0 was static and unidirectional in many ways, Web 2.0 thrives on social networks. Instagram was born in the Web 2.0 era, with a minimalist interface for editing and uploading photos in the app’s trademark square shape, from a mobile phone.

Since its initial release for iPhone in 2010, Instagram has added more features including a web browser interface (2012), video sharing, instant messaging, and monetization (2013), and Instagram stories–photos and short videos that disappear after 24 hours (2016). It falls into a Web 2.0 experience in almost all ways, providing a platform for discussion and engagement, a rich user experience with intuitive interface and appealing graphics, and the ability to use it across multiple devices.

Like Twitter, Instagram users can build communities with hashtags and comments; however, a more distinctive feature of the app is location tagging. These qualities allow users several ways to build communities. Additionally, because Instagram does not have the same re-sharing feature (like “retweeting”), content does not tend to go viral and this at least gives users the impression of original or personal content.

Also like Twitter, many institutions run Instagram pages. Since the platform is an image-sharing platform, museums and cultural institutions often share behind-the-scenes peeks of artifacts that are not on public display, recent acquisitions, or preservation in progress. This is a huge plus for institutions, and if the platform is maintained well, it can create another level of community engagement and allow for discussion in the comments and messaging. If poorly maintained, however, pages can acquire spam followers and bots, which can give the impression of engagement, but doesn’t provide any meaningful discussion or feedback.

Individuals can bond over shared love of history, too. From undergraduate and grad students to professors and curators to self-described history buffs, public pages allow users to share works in progress or images history lovers might find interesting. Like pages used by institutions, this allows for feedback (or, in the case of students, commiseration) and connections within communities. The dangers of Instagram are like those of other social media platforms for individuals: it can be a source of distraction and misinformation. It’s engineered to be engaging and addictive, and your author has found herself scrolling through image after hashtag after page, looking at perfectly bright and curated images.

The drawbacks of using a visually-based, addictive platform for history are clear. However, there are lots of gems to be found on Instagram. Public history pages that are well-maintained with informative captions and engaging communities are easy to find. Additionally, it is an intuitive platform with low barriers for entry and mobile-based interface. This means that up-and-coming public historians can share their works in progress anywhere they are, and build communities who are interested and engaged.

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