iPhone users who care about the fact they have an iPhone have always thought they were better than Android users, at least a little. Having the photo service, Instagram, be totally exclusive to them was just affirmation of that. But now the private photo sharing party where everybody makes supercool images all the time is on Android. The Instagram party’s been busted.
On one level, Instagram arriving on Android is simply a 30-million-strong social network — impressive, considering it’s only been on iOS — expanding to the next frontier, doubling its potential reach from an available market of over 315 million users to another 315 million or so. It’s also closing one of the last app gaps between Android and iOS — there’s practically no major service for the iPhone that you can’t get on Android. The last app deficiency marking Android as a second-class citizen is gone.
But the arrival of Android on Instagram also brings to the surface issues that often go unspoken when we talk about technology and who uses it, particularly vis-a-vis Android vs. iPhone. It primarily manifests itself as a matter of taste, but underlying those assumptions are real socioeconomic divisions.
In an essay about what made Steve Jobs so great, John Siracusa explains him as an übercritic — fundamentally it’s his hyper-developed taste, his ability to find “the flaws that no one else can see” that led Apple to make great products. When you buy an Apple product, part of the conceit is that you have good taste. Or at least better taste than the people buying an ugly Dell box or a grotesque Android phone, like this one.
So now that Instagram is coming to Android, you see tweets like these.
The basic supposition — even if it’s being “ironic” — is that Instagram is going to be ruined by the shitty taste of Android users. If you don’t have enough taste to pick the right phone, you can’t possibly have enough taste to shoot supercool images, right?
As hipsters. Or in other words, as a snob, or a certain kind of cultural elitist who prides themself on having better taste. Which makes me think of this n + 1 essay that explores how the concept of elitism has so “completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation.” It might seem strange to frame one’s choice of smartphone platform in a context more traditionally sorted along political/cultural and socioecnomic lines, but bear with me a bit.
It seems true enough that Android users, now a majority of smartphone owners, are going to post different things than iPhone users, because the data shows they’re different people. If you’re going to buy a cheap smartphone with a cheap data plan, increasingly you’re going to buy an Android phone. They’re what fill that space — which invites different classes of people. So you have the early adopter nerds, the people who just wanted any smartphone and that’s what a Verizon rep sold them, and increasingly, people just looking for a cheap phone that does more than text.
You cannot buy an iPhone through a low-cost carrier like Boost Mobile or with a prepaid contract — and the smartphone gap between prepaid and postpaid contracts is closing, filling up almost entirely with Android phones. Demographically, according to a report by the Stevenson Company, people who purchase prepaid are more likely to have a household income of $35k or less, less likely to have completed college and are more likely to be African-American than postpaid subscribers.
A widely cited Hunch survey of 15,518 users — admittedly somewhat self-selected, since the poll entirely consists of people who’ve signed up for Hunch — reveals more about who is using Android vs. who is using iOS. From their data on Android vs. iOS users, Android users are 80 percent more likely to only have a high school degree, 86 percent more likely to live in a rural area, 20 percent more likely to be politically conservative, 57 percent more likely to “prefer an ugly device that’s full-featured” and 71 percent more likely to have never left their native country. On the other hand, iOS users are 37 percent more likely to have a graduate degree, 27 percent more likely to live in the city, 17 percent more likely be politically liberal, 122 percent more likely to “prefer a sleek device that does just a few things,” more likely to be upper middle-class, and 50 percent more likely to have visited more than five countries. Practically textbook divisions between “real people” and “elites” in the current parlance of American political culture.
So while there is often a tinge of irony or the hahahaha-colored patina of UGH in the proclamations of iPhone users disgusted by the idea of the Android barbarians at the gate, under the surface is a more general tension between a population that tends to be more affluent and often manifests that affluence as a form of taste — hello conspicuous consumption and the privileged aesthetic of vintage photos — and one of the masses, a population filled with some segments that, generally speaking, have less of a voice in culture already, particularly in technology, whose culture is still largely determined and dominated by a bunch of moneyed white dudes in Silicon Valley. The (even jokingly) exclusionary politics of current Instagram users feel slightly more insidious if you think of Instagram in the mode of its founders, who see it not as a little site for sharing photos, but “very much a communications tool” that makes them hope they can “change the world in some real way.”
It’s not that iPhone Instagrammers are seriously looking to disenfranchise entire swaths of people, or advocating that they literally be cut off, but by wielding a certain kind of taste as a divining rod for who should be Instagramming and who shouldn’t, they’re unintentionally reinforcing so many existing structures of (dis)communication. What would it say if iPhone Instagram users really did flee to another social network?
The thing about changing the world, as the Instagram founders hope to do, is that it kind of helps to have as much of world involved as you can.