Skill in the Age of Instagram

I had started a post a few months ago, which I had tentatively titled “Approximating Skill”. It was a fairly scathing indictment of what I had refered to as the “Instagram generation”.

As anyone who has been following my recent posts here knows, I attach a lot of importance to the notion of “skill”, especially in relation to art forms where there are popular misconceptions regarding the ability to “buy” your way into a particular skill-set.

In “Skill vs Gear”, I had tried to explain that, no matter how many toys or additional pieces were added into any mix, the most important variable is the skill of the operator/artist in control of the production. It seems like a fairly simple thing to understand, but in the muddied world of extensive post-production and devalued skill-sets, that common understanding is constantly called into question.

Take Instagram, for example. It’s a fairly simple concept, being a marriage between Twitter-style hashtags (don’t get me started on that – we should just call it U+0023 and get it over with), social networking, and cameraphone photography. (I happen to particularly loathe cameraphone photography, except for the ubiquitous and universally available nature of cameraphones.) The issues, as far as I’m concerned, begin to arise in the dual areas of devaluation and lack of appreciation.

Devaluation. This comes into play when every Instagram (or insert other type of skill-sapping or replacing app here) user begins to assume that they, yes they, are capable of producing professional results. Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed that it took 10,000 hours of time to amass enough skill to master a certain skill-set. I prefer to refer to this chart (ignore some of the strange and inappropriate labels – the sentiment is the important part). As perceived self-skill increases, valuation of others’ skill-sets decreases. This explains much of the reluctance to hire professional photographers and cinematographers/videographers, or to value their skills so little that an insulting amount of compensation is considered “reasonable” for their time and effort.

Lack of appreciation. Autotune and Instagram are both partially to blame for this – but it seems as though actual skill is barely recognizable anymore, to a vast swath of the population, for any given skill-set. I do understand that the Dunning-Kruger Effect means that any person is going to assess their own skill-set incorrectly. This, however, reaches far beyond that conclusion. After having been subjected to hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of blown out and ill-colored photos, and subjected to far too many songs which have been pitch corrected beyond human recognition, the latest generation has mostly lost the ability to differentiate between “faked” output and true skill. I recently had an entire photoshoot (which I dutifully handed over to the photographed party) blown out, miscolored, and made to look like a bunch of terrible Instagram photos – all, supposedly, in the name of appealing to the younger generation, as they “appreciate” things that look like that. As far as faked output goes, it’s not limited to amateurs; big budget Hollywood studios have been exploiting basic digital correction to make everything look the same – the Instagramification of movies (that article also points out the annoying “shaky cam” stuff that I had been discussing in my earlier post). In the end, skills fall along the standard/normal distribution curve, even if the skills represented by the vertical axis may be logarithmic in scale.

The Hipster Effect. I realize that I only counted two areas earlier in this post, but this would lack something if I didn’t mention the effect that the “Hipster” culture has had on perceived skills. Rather than reiterate every terrible think about Hipster culture, I’ll let this guy do it for me. I don’t know if I can explain this better than there is no such thing as ironically bad music or photography. The misconception that there is has very deeply damaged the ability for the average hipster to properly appreciate music and photography, assuming that they are searching for ironically bad things, rather than attempting to appreciate skill. Crummy audio recordings, “vintage looks”, and other gimmicks serve to hide, rather than accentuate, the skills involved in the production of the underlying art.

Processing/Post-Production. When you do not require initial skill to create something, but can merely “shop” your way out of any situation, the underlying skill is devalued, and sometimes forgotten. I’ve been trying to emphasize the value of learning to create effects and the vast majority of the cinematic treatment of the mise-en-scène, rather than simply using a series of post-production tools to bend the footage to my will. This has more to do with the propensity for forgetting basic cinematic technique which comes with foregoing the steps involved with figuring out how to do this work on set. The real damnation seems to come when there is no actual knowledge of the underpinnings and workings of the art, and a novice decides to use post-processing exclusive of skill. This is the disease which is Instagram, Autotune, and Photoshop, in a nutshell.

The only way to fight this is to not concede defeat. If we are actually artists instead of simple camera jockeys, why shouldn’t we be pushing for our craft and skill-set to receive the recognition which it deserves? I understand that some of the lost ground, in terms of general appreciation, has been lost – but hopefully we can keep the situation from getting much worse through education and perserverence.