I don't really do selfies, food snaps or workout photos -- at least not to share with the public. And yet, instagram is saturated with these kind of images, now with the addendum of being an #ad. So, when I first read about what is best described as instagram storytelling, I was excited. Of course, the platform was already there -- the photo element, the caption element, the "instant" nature of sharing a story but I had never thought about using it for actual journalism -- not just the promotion of journalism. Longform narrative writer Neil Shea mostly of National Geographic is one of the best at the instagram story and wrote about it for Nieman Storyboard last year. He focuses on a solid picture, usually a portrait (or partners with a professional photographer like the great, Lynsey Addario) and writes for "mood and tone" using hard and fast journalism techniques -- lede, arc, kicker -- to craft a short but powerful story. The idea behind these mini-stories is to gather as many shards of "truth" as possible and assemble them in a story, across a series.
Shortly after this, Shea along with the Virginia Quarterly Review began a year long " social media experiment in nonfiction, in which stories share platforms" between the magazine, website and instagram connected by the #VQRTrueStory tag. The series has so far featured journalists and writers including Meera Subramanian reporting on a changing India, Jeff Sharlet on night workers and Lauren Markham on Central American migrants.
Shea's piece inspired me to try my hand at instagram storytelling -- especially when I wasn't doing anything else with the platform -- and I decided to put together a few mini-series late last year. This kind of storytelling is best when its 'instant' that is, with a piece you're currently reporting. But my day-to-day work rarely involves field reporting and my most recent reporting was done in the wilderness sans internet, so I scanned the archive to find a few threads that I could string together.
I decided to focus on three countries and sets of photos -- Kenya, Haiti and Nicaragua -- creating several short series of two or three photos. Each story attempted to be a both a contained story and contribute to the broader story of either a theme, a country or a moment in time. The Haiti story was about two conversations I had with a young girl called Mish in Port-au-Prince while the Kenya story repurposed an old story I had written on disability in a town called Ngong and the lives of women who raised disabled children in the developing world.
The biggest take-away from this experience is that engagement is hard to gauge. These instagram stories, at least for my own purposes, exist solely on that platform meaning that short of comments or likes, I have no way of measuring their 'impact' or less-technically, if anyone has read them. And, for someone with few instagram followers it's difficult to discern whether friends (they're mostly friends) are liking a photo because they've read the caption/story or, they're liking a photo because that's what friends on instagram do.
Since this experiment I've begun using instagram in different ways such as sharing recent writing through excepts and photos and for a while, chronicling a roadtrip in Western Australia (which was difficult with sporadic internet). But I'm eager to experiment with instagram stories again perhaps this time with a focus on current reporting as well as sharing those life and travel vignettes that never make it into a larger narrative.