If you use the Instagram app, or read about Instagram in the news, you probably have a fair idea of what it’s all about: beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful settings. Celebrities being real in posts that get thousands of likes and boatloads of devotion. Influencers selling everything from makeup to clothes to health solutions. And to a certain extent it’s true; there is an Instagram like that.
But Instagram is so large—there were a billion users a month as of June 2018, according to Statista (statista.com/statistics/253577/number-of-monthly-active-instagram-users)—there can be many different aspects of the platform. And the one with the beautiful people and the influencers and the rich and famous is not the one I’m interested in.
I’m interested in the Instagram people use to record their culture. To preserve and sometimes reenact history. To teach me things I didn’t know about. The cultural content Instagram. The curation-by-amateurs Instagram. The Instagram, in other words, that provides a depth you won’t get from a celebrity who decided to do weird eyebrows or not wear pants on a particular day. Let me give you a tour of that Instagram.
I’m not talking about library or archive Instagram accounts. I’m talking about people or groups of people who want to document a particular slice of their cultural or history. But why would people use Instagram this way? I have a couple of theories.
First, it’s accessible and easy to use. Instagram isn’t complicated, especially if you’re not trying to maximize your likes or tweak your posts for the most extensive reach possible. Upload some photos, include a description, toss in a few hashtags if you like, and away you go. And the way Instagram displays photos means that they’re browsable and prominent in a way that was not the focus (pardon the pun) of earlier photography sites such as Flickr.
Second, it’s where people are. A billion active users a month. A non-professional curator would have Instagram top-of- mind when thinking about where to save photos. And their friends are probably there too. Why not Instagram?
As a cultural curation platform, Instagram has been used to illuminate history, to explore human identity, and to experience various cultures and subcultures.
WORLD WAR II HISTORY
It’s been more than 73 years—a lifetime ago—since World War II ended. As the past recedes into, well, the past, it becomes more difficult to learn the lessons history teaches, as the lives lived become more unfamiliar and less understandable. A heartrending Instagram account is trying to make World War II—specifically, the Holocaust—more accessible.
Meet Eva Heyman. She was a teenager during World War II. She kept a diary. And she died during the Holocaust. Israeli-born entrepreneur Mati Kochavi and daughter Maya used the diary and collection of actors to create an Instagram called eva.stories (instagram.com/eva.stories), which follows Eva from Feb. 13, 1944, to May 31, 1944, shortly before she was deported to Auschwitz. She died there in October 1944.
This Instagram account is unusual in that it doesn’t have any photos at all. The grid of photos is replaced with a tiled introductory image and short description of the project. All the material is in a series of Instagram stories at the top of the page. Scroll all the way to the right and you’ll start on Feb. 13, 1944, with an introduction to Eva and her family. The end of the stories includes information on what happened the following month, what happened to Eva, and finally the credits for the project.
“Gut-wrenching” is hardly adequate to describe this series. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears. (Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears several times.) Also don’t be surprised if you find yourself taken aback by “Eva’s” use of hashtags and filters, something that has caused controversy about the project, with some critics calling it in “bad taste,” as Oliver Holmes reports in The Guardian, May 8, 2019 (theguardian.com/world/2019/may/08/instagram-holocaust-diary-evastories-sparks-debate-in-israel). But with 1.7 million followers to this series, it is raising awareness of history that needs to be kept alive, even as the generation who lived it continues to fade.
Irish Ring Forts
The thing about history is that it doesn’t always look like history, especially when it’s archaeology. It’s clear what you’re looking at when you see the ruins of a castle, or a wall, or even an old road. But what about a green hillock? What about a green hillock with a circular curve? What about tens of thousands of them?
Those are Irish ring forts, also known as “fairy forts,” housing and defensive structures that date back centuries, as described in an Irish Times article by Manchán Magan (irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/fairy-forts-why-these-sacred-places-deserve-our-respect-1.3181259). It’s estimated that there are 45,000 of these structures in Ireland (irishcentral.com/news/ irelands-ring-forts-social-media). Of course, visiting and documenting that many locations in one place would be a very difficult task for the most dedicated Instagrammer.
That’s where the bots come in. Keith O’Faoláin has created a project called everyringfort (vool.ie/everyringfort), which exists on Twitter and Instagram (instagram.com/everyringfort). Using a dataset from Ireland’s National Monuments Service Sites and Monuments Record, a bot posts a satellite image of a ring fort every hour. (The full dataset has 30,125 sites, but after reviewing the data, O’Faoláin removed some entries and was left with a list of 29,772 sites.)
There are no people at all in these hourly posts, just images of a green, green Ireland. Sometimes the rings are obvious and almost pop out of the picture. And sometimes they’re faint marks in the middle of a field. The description for each picture posted includes information on its location; I found that if you go to Ireland’s National Monuments Service and use the Historic Environment Viewer (webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment), you can input the location and get additional information on the ring fort, its dimensions, and its modern history (such as when it was leveled or cleared).
Even if you’re not particularly interested in Ireland’s history, you might find such a unique set of Instagram images interesting to visit. And you’ve got plenty of time to check out this Instagram—even by posting one image an hour, Keith O’Faoláin expects his bots to be busy showing ring forts until 2022.