Instagram functions in 29 of the 32 discrete languages of iOS (42 if all national or dialectal variants are counted). Its purpose is to communicate via one photograph at a time. You can scroll, but you cannot set up a lightbox or layout of photographs as you can everywhere else. Nor can you embiggen a photograph without taking heroic measures. (Both are possible in a browser.)

Because the application senses your system language, when it does need to talk to you it uses your language without any effort of your own. Instagram fundamentally communicates nonlinguistically via thousand-word pictures – and also with words you already understand. And in the majority of its languages, “Instagram” is itself a plausible and pronounceable word.

The fly in the ointment here is comments. I’m sure it’s much worse for girls, who appear in my “feed” so rarely I’m taken aback every single time, but any reasonably cute narcissistic male with a plethora of shirtless and/or swimsuit pics will be larded with comments in Portuguese (Brazilian in every case), Spanish, possibly Thai and Arabic, and always English.

Two sets of Instagram comments, variously in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and some in emoji only


  • Spanish is most annoying here given Instatwits’ insistence on calling every cute boy guapo, an irksome word whether or not one pronounces the G.

  • Rich Arab Muslim gays with their own shirtless and/or swimsuit pictures are a cultural phenomenon unto themselves. They’re at risk of murder by fellow Muslims and they aren’t fooling anybody.

  • The cutlines you write for your pictures are, I believe, ignored. I know this in part because any time I fact-check kids’ asses they can’t believe my temerity. (As elsewhere, they must be new here.)

  • Emoji are another nonlinguistic system seen everywhere.

Instagram thus achieves paralanguage. It represents the apex of software localization: Nothing it presents to you seems foreign or takes effort to understand. Instagram hovers on top of human language, functioning as a de facto global medium. Yet it does so without a hint of cultural appropriation or imperialism.

Added fun fact: As with blocking on Twitter, blocking on Instagram is pointless. Any open account is viewable when not logged in, and in fact blocking produces a Streisand effect. It also tempts me to download pictures, an easy task I have done on occasion.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2016.06.28 11:37. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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