Stop Instagramming and get a life: How cell phone cameras ruin real moments

stop instagramming camera phonesOn a recent episode of Leo Laporte’s podcast This Week in Tech, panelist Dwight Silverman spoke briefly about a concert featuring David Byrne and St. Vincent. Prior to the performance, Byrne told the audience that smartphone photography was encouraged, but that they should put down their iPads.

As anyone who has ever seen a 10-inch screen held aloft in a concert can attest, iPads can be a severe distraction, making Byrne prescient as ever. However, I don’t think he goes far enough. As great as ubiquitous camera access is, we might all be better off if we used our camera phones less often. Here’s why – whether you’re at a concert or just out for a walk in the woods.

It distracts others

Getting close to one of our favorite performers can make us want to document that experience. But no one wants an iPad screen blocking their view. Concerts are best enjoyed when there is little inhibiting the interaction between performers and audience. An iPad between you and the performer on stage will be a significant impediment to appreciating a performance. Bravo, David Byrne, for dissuading the inconsiderate from ruining things for the rest of the audience.

I would actually encourage him to go further, and ban all mobile devices. Phones may not be as large a disruption as a tablet, but they are a distraction nonetheless. Plus, where do you draw the line? “Phablets” like the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 2 make the distinction so difficult, it would be far better to simply ban them all.

It distracts you

Not only is shooting video at a performance going to distract others, it will distract you as well.

You only have so much attention to go around. If you want to record a quality video, you have to shift too much of your attention to making that recording good. That leaves little attention left to appreciate what’s happening on stage — and that’s not even considering the distraction of tired arms at the seven-minute mark of a nine-minute song.

Shooting video also prevents you from physically engaging with the performance. If you go see The Hives, you will want to dance or jump around far more than you will want to have a camera in your hands. Trust me.

Audio is better

Nobody wants to see that grainy cell-phone video that you shot from the 40th row. Bootlegging communities for bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead indicate that someone may want to hear an audio recording, though. In that case, you will need better microphones than those in your smart phone.

The $100 Mikey Digital (which attaches to an iOS device) and the $270 Zoom H4n are great for bootlegging. Both will create far better recordings than you can make with a phone alone. The Zoom H4n is especially feature rich, and sounds great as well. I use one regularly and have really enjoyed the recordings it creates.

Mikey Digital ios attachable microphoneBonus: When recording audio, it’s actually a bad idea to move around, and in most cases you won’t change the settings on your recording device, either. This means no bright screens to distract others and less oversight to distract you. Everybody wins!

Just make sure to get performer consent before creating a bootleg, and make sure that they are aware of and approve any releases of the recordings you create.

It trivializes an experience

An emphasis on documentation can also cheapen other experiences by reducing them to a few still frames.

Hiking is a good example, even though I admit I don’t go much myself. Snapping cell-phone shots of a hike trivializes the experience of hiking. Is hiking about a photograph of a far off mountain, or is it about removing yourself from a higher-frequency world to one more tranquil, and moving through a different environment in an enjoyable, strenuous way?

Photos prioritize destinations. Hiking seems to be more about the journey. Plus, is your camera phone really going to do that view justice? If you want an excellent photo, bring a DSLR and some good lenses. Absent that, concentrate on enjoying the view while there, and don’t distract yourself with poor facsimiles of the view to enjoy later.

It intrudes on the experience

One of the most important things about hiking or camping is that it takes you away from technology. Sorry, Tom Haverford, you don’t need DJ Roomba. You need to unplug for a minute and get away from the radiation of the city.

Your Instagram of the campfire does prove that you slept in the woods, but it also hopelessly detracts from that experience. You should be focused on roasting smores, not creating second-rate pseudo-Polaroids with what amounts to a tiny computer. Using high-tech devices to memorialize an experience that is largely defined by getting away from high-tech devices seems to miss the point.

It creates clutter

Our ability to easily capture photos, video, and audio anywhere we go with nearly unlimited storage adds a nearly impossible amount of clutter to our lives. Take photos, for example. You aren’t going to take one photo of that rad piece of graffiti. You will probably take several and then use the best one. You still have to do something with those other photos, though.

If you take hundreds of pictures, then those are hundreds of pictures that you need to deal with. You have to pare them down to the few best ones. They may need to be processed, resized, or cropped. If you want to be careful, the ones that you like most should be backed up somewhere.

instagram food camera phonesThis can add a lot of overhead, and most non-photographers don’t have good workflows to get it done. For example: Why do I have a photo of the last pork tenderloin sandwich I had when last in Indiana? There was no reason to take it in the first place. Now it is a useless piece of digital clutter. Plus, it made my phone greasy when I took it, and now I really want a pork tenderloin sandwich — both big negatives.

It makes us worse people

Yes, your friend’s compound fracture is fascinating in a horrifying sort of way, but I might be better off if I didn’t have opportunities to see things like that online. There would be a lot less fodder for /r/wtf (not to mention even less-savory sub-Reddits) if we didn’t all have decent-quality phones in our pockets. And that’s to say nothing of the feelings of the injured party.

We may be at our very worst as a species when we’re rubber-necking for a longer glance at the suffering of others. Ubiquitous camera access feeds this behavior directly, as we take more time to get photos and personally appreciate them later, and vicariously, as we encourage others to enjoy another’s pain with us. Sites like Reddit make this even worse, as the most gruesome injuries will also be rewarded with viral attention.

If we were more restrained with our camera phones, perhaps there would be a little less celebration of the terrible things around us.


David Byrne would never get away with banning cell phones from his performances. The uproar would be too great. This one has to be on us.

The next time you are at a concert, put down the camera phone. Focus more on the performance and you might just enjoy it more. If you are hiking or camping, leave your phone in your pocket. Don’t miss the point of the whole endeavor. And, for goodness sake, if you happen to be at the scene of an injury, accident, or tragedy, have some decency and don’t snap a shot to share online. We might just all be better off.