For a good while now, I have been trying — and failing — to get the hang of Instagram. I hasten to add that my ability to wrap my head around Instagram equally applies to Snapchat and any other photo-based social network. The issue isn’t the interface or the filters or controls or anything else about the usability of the app. 

I don’t speak the language of Instagram but I am learning to understand it.

I consider my inability to speak this language a problem. 

In one of the unrecorded discussions of our most recent Mellon funded Summer Institute, Fraser Speirs pointed out that if there was a theme to one of our day’s (or days’) discussions, it had to have been Instagram and how our students had begun to gravitate towards it as a communication platform and social space — one that we should understand and learn how to use to reach them and, when appropriate, to bring into our classrooms. 

I had looked at Instagram (and Snapchat) in the past and knew several people (including the always au fait Jemayne King — check out his “Meme You No Harm” talk) who had made the jump to photo-based platforms. So I dusted off my account[1] and tried once more to navigate the platform. 

I still don’t get it. That said, I have learned a lot from those who do. In my attempt to “get it”, I selected people to follow from among former students, some current colleagues, and some artists (mostly dancers, photographers — both professionals and serious hobbyists[2], and sculptors) of my acquaintance. I also added in some organizations I respected highly, including NASA

I cannot say that there is a one-to-one correspondence between artists and high-quality Instagram accounts but the odds will ever be in your favor. Their eye has been trained to follow the phenomenal world and either capture compelling images or know when one has been captured.

What I found particularly interesting was what NASA was doing with Instagram Stories. I had initially followed them for their collection of beautiful space imagery. They let me go, at least imaginatively, where no one has gone before. Those interested in the application of technology in the classroom, NASA’s stories are worth considering carefully.

For those unfamiliar with stories, they are a series of still images and videos that a user links together. In theory, they tell some sort of story — even if it is as simple as “Look at how my day went.” Those teaching narrative in Creative Writing and Photography classes should take note of this. It is a way of building narratives within a means of distribution.

NASA is using these stories to create self-continued mini-presentations on their missions or a space science topic. They are well put together but, as is appropriate to the medium, they are rough cut rather than highly polished artifacts involving advanced post-production. 

They are a model for the rest of us. After all, these are people explaining rocket science to those that aren’t rocket scientists. It is the kind of thing that any academic could use to illustrate self-contained, foundational items from their field — the elements that we so often despair that our students don’t come to us having learned. An English Professor, for example, might put together a series of stories that explain the parts of poetry. One story could focus on the iamb followed by another on the trochee. Or, perhaps, a series that explains the comma and how it is used.

The stories may be ephemeral, but there is no reason that they could not be re-released as reruns by a sufficiently enterprising individual.

Now, if someone could put together one covering the language of Instagram, I would appreciate it.


  1. Those of you who are curious should read the privacy policies and understand who owns what before jumping into these sites. Those who have developed an antipathy towards Facebook, for example, should understand that Facebook owns Instagram. For those who have bought in to the Facebook platform, however, this will come as great news because the two services integrate easily.
         I don’t mention this to be an alarmist but because users should remember that free services are paid for somehow and that others might try to unscrupulously profit from their work and/or family photos. Look at your privacy settings and make sure they are set at a level that you are comfortable with. Also, be sure to understand that the deal you have made about the pictures you upload could change as companies are bought and sold.
  2. I chose Andy Ihnatko and Scott Bourne’s accounts to use as examples here because not only are their accounts public, they regularly refer people to them on podcasts. There are many others whose names (e.g., could easily appear here.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at