Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hands-on with Instagram

Since I already have an Instagram account, one that I primarily access via the mobile app, I’m already somewhat familiar with the Instagram mobile interface. So, I decided to start this exploration with a tour through the actual website. That turned out to be a very short tour, as Instagram (the website) does not seem to have a way to search for hashtags, users, or view anything besides your own profile and the people you already follow. The entire tool seems to be designed around the mobile app. This could mean that, if a library wanted to use an Instagram account, they would need to remember that new users might have trouble finding the library’s Instagram profile if they prefer to access Instagram via computer. However, since Instagram is primarily a mobile app, that shouldn’t be a huge issue. It might present problems if the library wanted to use Instagram as their only social media outlet, but I don’t think that would be a wise decision to begin with; from what I’ve seen, Instagram seems to function best, at least in an official capacity, when paired with something like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or a blog.

In contrast to the website, the Instagram mobile interface has a search/browse function, called “Explore”, that allows users to search for posts via usernames or hashtags. The browse function loads 18 random photos at a time, all without text or captions, rather than having a scrolling feed of random or recent posts. This makes Instagram’s focus on visual media extremely obvious – they’re assuming users will tap photos or videos that look interesting, without needing any sort of context or identification to persuade them. Searching for “#library” returned more than 1 million posts, many of them (predictably) selfies with books in the background. However, a reasonable number of other posts show college campuses or library staff, and the captions accompanying a number of the selfies indicate that they were taken within university libraries with a deliberate intention of advertising that the person featured is a frequent library user. This points to a pre-existing tendency for students to use Instagram to communicate their presence in the library; it’s not a major leap to think that that communication could go in the other direction as well, especially since a number of major academic libraries are already using Instagram to make that happen.

It seems like libraries using Instagram would do well to keep in mind that it really functions best as a solo mobile app, not a website with an app version, and design their posts and photos to correspond with both the format and mindset of mobile devices. That is, it would probably be best to stick to photos that are bright and clear enough to be easily viewed on a small screen, and to try to keep accompanying text short and engaging, with links to longer posts on the library blog, Facebook page, Twitter, or Tumblr if necessary, so that users feel like it’s something they can keep up with on the go.

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