The Trouble With Identity’s Late Arrival On Instagram

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BeTheDancer is Alex Greenburg’s name and handle on Instagram. He’s a good friend and a brilliant photographer, but because Instagram doesn’t require real names, I had a lot trouble using the app’s new tagging feature to point him out in my photos. Right now, Instagram’s 100 million users are discovering that while pseudoanonymity can be fun, it’s not always  functional.

On Facebook, you’re told to use your real name, and most do. That makes it very easy to search for and friend people. Mark Zuckerberg knew the social graph depended on you being you, and saw how Myspace’s lack of real name policy made it a haven for impersonators and unaccountability.

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When Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger started Instagram, it wasn’t meant to be your meatspace social graph or the online copy of your personality. It was just for smartphonetography. You entered your handle and your “name”. Neither had to be your real name.

Some people still use their birth name or a shortening of it as their username. I’m joshsc, for example. And many do put in their actual first and last name. But many others don’t add their real name and just go by a pseudoanonymous handle. Thanks to Facebook’s Find Friends feature it hasn’t been so hard to follow them, though.

But today Instagram launched photo tagging, where you have to tap someone’s real name or handle into a typeahead to say they’re in an image. That gets a lot tougher if they don’t have their real name attached to their account. I didn’t think to search for Be The Dancer when I wanted to tag my buddy Alex in a portrait I shot of him a year ago.

Over the next few days, Instagram users are going to be annoyed inundated with frequent notifications that they’ve been tagged in photos. But I’d bet those who go solely by pseudonyms will get a lot less. Tacking true identity onto a two-plus year-old social network doesn’t come easy. It could even steal a bit of the carefree atmosphere that’s made Instagram such a refreshing alternative to Facebook.

But one thing photo tagging will certainly do is strengthen Instagram’s social graph. After going to name a few friends in my photos, I realized I wasn’t following many of them. I opened the Facebook Find Friends feature and found hundreds of chums had joined Instagram since I last checked. I followed a ton of them, because Instagram isn’t just about photos anymore. It’s about the photographers, and the subjects who inspire them.

Be The Dancer