Last week Instagram announced what sounded like a fairly routine update. IGTV, which began as a hub for vertical video only, will now allow for horizontal video as well. “For creators, this means more freedom to express themselves how they want. Vertical videos work great for creators who want to be up-close and personal with their audience,” Instagram wrote in a blog post. “But landscape also has its strengths, especially when it comes to formats like dance and sports which are high motion and often feature a handful of people in frame.”
For a moment, it seemed as if Instagram would attempt to hold out as a haven for vertical-only video, a much-maligned format. Portrait mode and those who film only in it are often mocked—in fact, there is even a Know Your Meme entry for “Vertical Video Syndrome.” A since-deleted viral 2012 YouTube video featuring talking puppets poked fun at vertical videos and the large black borders they force around content.
The problem largely has to do with YouTube’s orientation rules; many have pointed out that instead of changing the way users film, the major streaming network could take some time and adjust its embed code so that videos would render differently depending on how they were filmed. (Vimeo did exactly this, in fact.) But it seems more and more likely that YouTube’s lack of interest in adjusting to portrait mode might not matter. The original aggravation was a result of how vertical videos look when being viewed on a computer—and that’s happening less. One 2017 study found that people watch 30 minutes of video on their phones every day, up from four minutes in 2012, and those numbers are rising. Despite the recent struggles of Snapchat, Periscope, and Vine, the early rise of those apps proved that there is a market for vertical videos. That they couldn’t figure out a path to monetization doesn’t discount the viral success they enjoyed and the creative boom they inspired. The vertical video has become such a staple that Samsung even made a TV specifically for watching smartphone content.
The cinematic experience and video playback formatting issues are the technical drawbacks of vertical video, but its enduring popularity says something about what consumers may actually want. Vertical video is widely regarded as a more personal view, even if it’s cinematically a worse frame. You would think that the leaps in smartphone tech and screen resolution in recent years would steer consumers’ preferences toward whatever process is going to yield the most aesthetically pleasing content. But vertical video has some intangible advantages. “The secret ingredient of the vertical beast is intimacy,” a market report from The Drum read. “Filming on our phones is by its very nature, intimate.” The act of filming yourself or what you’re seeing in portrait mode brings the viewer in closer to the subject, and users have come to associate it with influencers and internet celebrities, including those who use Instagram Live: quick, immediate, close-up content that might not be a visual masterpiece, but is real. (Or, as real as these things can be.)
Instagram wasn’t ready to fully commit to portrait mode, but the format has stubbornly maintained its importance to users and the social web—and the platform could benefit from embracing it. Instagram started as a place to share not-so-great pictures of your dog; the idea was to capture and post the little moments, the unimportant things, without flash or flair. Clearly, everything has changed: Now photos are polished to perfection, and feeds are carefully curated. The result is a visually appealing place to scroll and tap around, but also one inundated by advertisers. It’s a bona fide business, for better or worse, and in the process it’s lost some of that rawness and intimacy it began with. The addition of landscape video is a bit like when Instagram added other ratio options aside from the square; these changes are themselves small, but they chip away at Instagram’s original identity.
Landscape-mode videos for IGTV make sense for advertisers and professionals who want a more polished look, but that might not be what users want. Instagram wasn’t willing to be experimental and take a creative stand—but eventually some social app will, and creators will have their smartphones held (vertically) at the ready.