The latest experiment in social media journalism began, for one writer, with something decidedly non-tech: used reporter’s notebooks.
Dog-eared, jammed with impressions and spilling out of desk drawers, those notepads, Neil Shea decided, contained far too many untold stories. Lost among their pages were details that didn’t make the main article but languished in his memory.
“Most of them just vanish into our personal archives,” said Shea, a frequent contributor to National Geographic and contributing editor to Virginia Quarterly Review. “There’s not enough room in the magazine. Even on the web, there’s not a tremendous appetite for secondary stories.
“So we just started talking about the idea that Instagram might be the perfect vehicle to tell some of these brief stories from the field,” he said.
Shea’s surfeit of stories from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya in 2014 created some of the first longform Instagram posts — arresting, full-frame photos paired with 300-word captions that weave a concise and intimate narrative around the image. Many simply featured the portraits Shea had taken with his iPhone 6 to recall subjects as he wrote.
The wooden canoes always seemed to hobble through the water, half-sunk and fickle as a Sunday drunk. Barely more than flotsam. Once I asked who made them and the fishermen pointed north to Ethiopia, to a fading kingdom of trees. Many things came from there, looping down through the delta—guns, fish, fertilizer, rumors of death or rebellion. Rafts of thick grass came, too, and every few days a new flotilla drifted into the lake. Most were green specks, but now and then a large one appeared, an islet rustling with birds and frogs and other creatures. Occasionally the local priest, a German, would swim out to meet them and haul aboard as though he were a giant shouldering into Lilliput. Imagine—this white guy rising from the opaque water, long-haired and pale as dawn. He rode the islets south for a time and did not worry about crocodiles. In the middle of our stay something strange occurred. For several nights the islets arrived on fire. One after another, glowing fierce as comets. Before I slept I would scan the darkness and note their positions in the void beneath Orion’s belt. When I woke hours later, delirious with heat, I’d find them farther along, still aflame and somehow more familiar. Always by morning they had vanished. For a while I thought them a dream. I asked, but no one could say why they burned or what the Ethiopians might be doing upriver. Soon I thought better of it and stopped looking for answers. Mystery keeps better than fact, and I wanted those nights blazing. // #laketurkana #omoriver #daasanach #kenya #islet #canoe #natgeo #onassignment with @randyolson +@natgeo // See the series: #jadeseaseries2014
“It evolved from there into not just portraits and little profiles, but stories from the field as a magazine story was coming together,” Shea said, and later collaborations with photographers such as Randy Olson and Yuri Kozyrev, whose stunning images anchored his words.
The phenomenon — called caption blogging, longform social storytelling and Instagram journalism — takes advantage of the rapid growth of a photographic platform that draws 400 million monthly active users. Pew Research Center reported last year that 26 percent of online adults use Instagram. (Teens of course far outrank their adult counterparts, with 52 percent using the social media channel.) Continue reading