A PSA To Everyone Who Uses Instagram: Stop Copying Each Other

by Emily Arata

So you’ve painted, photographed or crafted something beautiful and you’re looking for a way to share it with the world. If you’re interested in having it stolen or copied, there’s one sure place to go.

Instagram is the ultimate metaphor for the state of creative culture in 2015. The medium is an ode to how little we value originality. Argue the state of Apple Music and Spotify all you want, but nowhere has the thieving nature of the Internet become more evident than on everyone’s favorite photography app.

Laughably, Instagram describes itself as a means to "capture and share the world's moments” before turning "everyday photos and videos into works of art.” Even thinking about it, I’m one side-eye emoji away from wearing out my iPhone.

Admittedly, I’m a little sensitive to the creative infringement the app's community so readily fosters because, late this summer, I witnessed my newborn nephew became a viral meme.

Befuddled, I watched as the gears of social media turned.

While celebrating my first months as an aunt, I went to visit my sister’s son just in time for his baptism. Infants have a way of grasping anything within reach; the little one latched on to the side of my mom’s wine glass before pushing his mouth against it like a puffer fish.

Laughing, I snapped a photo and Instagrammed it. It wasn’t long before I received a text from our director of social media here at Elite Daily, asking if she could use the snapshot for a meme posted to our website’s official Instagram. After getting permission from an eager brother-in-law, up he went. One little boy, one big Internet.

Our social media team promised anonymity, as well as a sizable “Elite Daily” watermark across the photo to ensure it stayed in our possession. According to Instagram's Terms of Use, all images uploaded belong to the user under copyright.

Precautions aside, every member of our team underestimated the grasping fingers of Instagram humor accounts seeking fodder for new posts.

Earlier this year, dozens of comics on both Twitter and Instagram criticized social media star Josh “The Fat Jewish” Ostrovsky for lifting jokes and memes without credit. However, the uproar turned out to be largely ineffectual, as many accounts still don’t feel the need to source content.

If a website wouldn’t plagiarize original journalism, why do Instagram users steal content?

Like a digital game of Whack-A-Mole, we watched versions of my nephew’s meme spring up across the app. Some cropped out the Elite Daily watermark, and an account called @NewYorkCityLady even went so far as to put its own watermark on the image. With 29,000 followers tuning in, this wasn’t small beans anymore.

Soon after, a popular comedy account called @Betches picked up the post with a false watermark and source, blasting the image to 2.7 million followers. We couldn’t stop the spread and we most certainly couldn't knock out every Instagram page using the photo. @NewYorkCityLady eventually deleted the post. So did another account owner, who shot back with a terse exchange.

While I’ll now think twice before making my infant relative into a meme ever again, there is a larger issue at hand here. Instagram’s problem is less about privacy and more about the value of creativity.

I fill my feed with artists, comedians, photographers and thinkers, each taking the time to upload original art to a digital network. I can’t hop on a plane to visit art galleries in Rio every day, but I can follow 10 Brazilian artists. The app provides an irreplaceable window into a world of creation and expression.

But, not everyone's in it for self-expression. There are thousands of fame-thirsty users looking to make a public name for themselves. For them, it’s easier to copy than create.

I’m not exclusively talking about posting memes and screencaps of early 2000s reality television, a subject that’s already been the focus of a dozen think pieces.

The copycat ethos exists on a larger scale, right down to users' photos featuring a latte in front of a pile of leaves.

Photographers stage every photo uniquely, studying light and angles until they arrive at the ideal composition. Instead of looking for something new, many Instagram users seek to recreate ideas that have worked well in the past.

Examine the parody account @SocalityBarbie, which features America’s favorite doll pursuing the delights of the Pacific Northwest in the style of a dozen Kinfolk Magazine shoots. The account, recently the subject of media attention, is so entertaining because it precisely captures the Instagram attitude of, "we don’t want a perfect shot, we want the shot someone else took perfectly."

Bloggers laughingly go along with Barbie’s newfound interest in long hikes and flannel because they have no choice but to acquiesce with humor poked in their direction. On the other hand, though, the images represent a meta cycle of copycat creatives: bloggers copying Barbie copying bloggers.

If 10,000 people have already taken a similar shot, it’s no longer art. (Unless we’re diving into the rabbit hole of Warhol-esque pop imagery.)

The entire Instagram conundrum is part of the Internet's lack of regard for creativity.

We've been conditioned to expect everything online for free, whether it's the latest Disclosure album or a New York Times essay.

It's violating to have your art stolen and used without your permission or obviously mimicked, be it a jingle or a photo of your nephew. Although we were raised in an era of movies beginning with pirating PSAs that compared downloading "10 Things I Hate About You" to jacking a hot rod, the only Internet we know is a free one.

An artist providing content without a fee creates a gift for others to see, read and experience. If that's the case, then Instagram is a veritable smorgasbord of presents. We should appreciate it as such.

In the interest of preserving art, talent and, frankly, sanity, it's time to reconsider the world of Instagram. Before you snap a pic, step a foot further to the side and reframe it in a new way. See social media with a fresh eye, perhaps for the first time.