Welcome to The InstaEssay Archive, an online collection of the emerging genre of Instagram Essays.
First, a word about the genre, and then the purpose of this site.
In recent months, a number of writers and photographers have begun to utilize Instagram beyond its common use as an application that enables the creation, stylizing, and sharing of personal photographs to a particular group of friends and acquaintances, and rather as a journalistic tool. In particular, writers like Jeff Sharlet and Neil Shea have paired their photos with short narratives, constrained to 2200 characters by Instagram’s caption limit. The effect is similar to that of “Flash Fiction”—short, impactful self-contained stories—except that these stories are true and paired with a photograph of the subject.
A variety of media outlets have begun to pick up on this trend and locate it within the scope of literary journalism. The website “Longreads,” which typically collects and syndicates long form reporting, collected Sharlet’s #nightshift series and included an essay by Sharlet on the work. There he refers to Instagram essays as “Snapshot Journalism” and locates its lineage within the frame of comic books, which use words and pictures, and snapshots, which, he points out anyone can take. Sharlet concludes his essay by noting, “It’s not the news. It’s not journalism in any conventional sense. It’s, Look at this! It’s, I saw these people, and I wanted you to see them, too.”
There are a number of benefits of writing for a social medium like Instagram, among them the ease with which these writers can create and then instantly share their work with a wide audience. But there are also associated problems, including the scattered and ephemeral nature of the medium. These issues are what prompted the creation of this archive — a place to gather and, hopefully, to save these pieces so that the individual works can be read on their own merit, but also in light of their status as a part of a whole.
The most challenging aspect of setting up this archive was the task of gathering the various pieces that have been published since Neil Shea started his work back in April, 2014. But, going forward, we’ve put a number of strategies in place to continue to collect and archive forthcoming work. As the genre continues to expand, however, this task too will become more complicated. For that reason, we’ve included a contact page on the site with the primary purpose of encouraging viewers to alert us to new Instagram posts, users, or hashtags that operate within this broad genre. If you’re aware of something missing here, please do let us know.
In addition to the archive itself, we've tried to build in a few additional features, which should prove helpful in getting to know this emerging genre. First, there's a feature provided by Neatline, which allows readers to discover InstaEssays via a map (for those writers who have geotagged their posts) and a timeline. As more writers take up the genre and (hopefully) use Instagram's geotag feature, the map should become a useful resource for visualizing the international nature of this genre. The timeline allows readers to get a sense of the way this genre has taken off since its inception.
Secondly, a network visualization has been included. Using the visualization software Gephi, the network of all included writers to date can be seen. Again, as the genre expands, this will be updated to include new writers. Our hope is that the graphic will prove useful in visualizing the genre's contributors as it grows.
One final note: the initial creation of this site, as noted above, involved the gathering and organizing of a large amount of data that, frankly, doesn’t seem to want to be organized. It is likely that there are some issues or errors here. If you find any, please don’t hesitate to let us know.
The goal is to keep this site updated with new posts on a regular basis. Check back often to continue reading as the story of InstaEssays unfolds.
Thank you for visiting,
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald