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Jan. 8, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
Audience & Social

A 91-year-old literary magazine is hosting a yearlong experiment in storytelling on Instagram

“When I look back at all the posts a year from now, I want to see that they reflect the editorial values of a great general-interest magazine.”

On my Instagram feed, sandwiched between a photo of a bagel and one of a friend’s Christmas tree, is a black-and-white snapshot of a homeless man sitting on a Manhattan sidewalk. The accompanying text is 400 words long, a sketch built from fragments of the man’s history as told to the post’s author (and photographer), Jamie Alliotts.

It’s not Humans of New York, the wildly popular blog and social media phenomenon that features images of people along with quotes or write-ups of their back stories. Rather, it’s part of an experimental series run by the Virginia Quarterly Review, the literary magazine published out of the University of Virginia.

This week #VQRTrueStory presents @jamiealliotts on encounters on the sidewalks of Manhattan: (1/4) Joseph Ritter used to be a fighter. Says he knocked out Bam Bam Bogner in ’87. Second round. “I caught him real quick with a three-piece combination—bing-bing-bing.” Says a boxing magazine once called him up-and-coming. He grins: “And smokin’.” No drugs or booze, he says. Just coffee and cigarettes. “I smoke like a Chevy with a bad oil leak.” // Says he fought in Iraq, too. Fallujah, early ’90s. His convoy rolled into a village. “There weren’t supposed to be any combatants.” But there were. An RPG destroyed the lead Hummer. “The guys inside were gone, it lit up like a torch.” He ran to help a buddy who was hit, drag him the hell out of there. That’s when the AK-47 blew his hip apart. Three shots. “All I felt was burning, like I was on fire. Next thing I knew I was in a helicopter.” // Joseph wants to work. He worked as a plumber in Philly. “War’s easier than being homeless,” he says. He was offered a plumbing job—no money for boots. A job waiting tables—no money for shirts. “No this, no that, no, no, no, no, no. No job, no phone, no money, no clothes, no way to clean up. All those nos piled up make things really difficult. The one thing I do have is need.” I start to feel like he’s trying to sell me something. Before I sat down, I’d offered him ten bucks. “I was hoping for twenty,” he’d said. // I ask how he ended up out here. Says his ex-wife got a DWI with their kids in the car. Child Services took the kids; he came up from Philly; the judge threatened him with abandonment charges; the money for hotel rooms ran out; here he is. Something doesn’t add up. Maybe. I ask to see the scars. The ones from that AK-47. “That’s a little personal, bro. They’re near my groin, right above my gun.” Later I’ll look up Bogner: Bang Bang, not Bam Bam. No record of a bout with a guy named Ritter. // “I love to do it,” he says. He means fighting. “In 130 seconds, I’ll hit a guy sixty times. My hands are like a machine gun.” He opens and closes his fists. Five, six times. Fast—really fast. Knuckles pop like firecrackers, dozens of them. He smiles. “Everybody calls me Champ.”

A photo posted by Virginia Quarterly Review (@vqreview) on

“We’re improvising as we go along,” VQR deputy editor Paul Reyes told me. “The potential lies in how Instagram, as a platform, shapes content. Part of this is determined by what people want to write about, what they’re sick of reading about, and how they might be motivated to push the limits of what can be done on this platform.”

As VQR describes it, the #VQRTrueStory project is a “social media experiment in nonfiction, in which stories share platforms — between Instagram, our website, and the magazine.” The magazine has committed to running, over the course of the year, writers’ weekly dispatches — first via its Instagram account @VQReview, but also collected on its website and excerpted in its print magazine. (Reyes said he’s happy to have readers experience the content on any of the available platforms, in any order.) All contributors are paid a small honorarium for their work.

The inaugural posts by journalist Meera Subramanian, on a changing India, ran in December: One photograph plus accompanying text every day, liberally hashtagged. The text is far from a straightforward description of the photograph. In her first 300-word dispatch, Subramanian wrote about the physical task of picking cotton, the plight of the woman depicted, the cycle of cotton crops from field to factory, the alarming quantity of pesticides used, and global agriculture giant Monsanto’s takeover of the Indian cotton market.

The posts were then published together as a cohesive (and slightly modified) single essay on the VQR website. In this case, each dispatch was given a title, like chapters in a short book.

One post from the series was also printed in the Winter 2016 issue of the magazine, along with one from another series that also ran on Instagram in December, under a #VQRTrueStory header and a note indicating its social media origin. All published material is photoedited, fact-checked, and copyedited (some idiosyncrasies are allowed, since this is social media). Reyes said VQR’s Instagram essays receive the same editorial treatment as all other magazine content.

“When I look back at all the posts a year from now, I want to see that they reflect the editorial values of a great general-interest magazine,” Reyes said, “and that they contain the same kind of variety, editorial integrity, and editorial commitment we practice at the magazine.”

A few weeks’ worth of series are already queued up for the new year. Reyes, Shea, and Sharlet drew from their own writing circles to start with, though they may branch out to photographers and other artists. They offer general pointers (for instance, to think of the photograph itself as the nut graf), but otherwise simply hope the contributors will challenge and surprise themselves when it comes to pairing photographs with text.

For most of the contributors so far, sustained writing on Instagram is a pretty foreign form. Subramanian, for instance, has published a book, but has posted only a handful of things to her own Instagram account. A few journalists who participated in the experiment maintain their own accounts where they post the usual fare of a photo with a brief caption.

“Paul, Jeff, and I had conversations about this project over many, many months,” writer and longtime VQR contributor Neil Shea told me. As a freelancer for publications like National Geographic, Shea has been cultivating a new style of narrative nonfiction via Instagram for awhile now. In a recent issue of Nieman Reports, he described “hacking” the platform for storytelling, calling Instagram “one of the world’s most successful general-interest magazines.”

Meanwhile, writer Jeff Sharlet (a contributing editor at VQR and a Dartmouth professor) has been experimenting with his own style of Instagram narratives — for instance, interviewing night-shift workers at a Dunkin’ Donuts in rural New Hampshire.

“Before VQR, I’d been trying out different experiments, and Jeff was trying out different and complementary ones on his own feed. Once we finally nailed everything down, the idea of doing serialized stories, or at least a series of related posts, seemed like a natural way to do it,” Shea said. “It seemed like what the medium wanted, what the audience would respond to. It’s a breath of fresh air from the normal longform stuff that’s everywhere now.”

“I’m interested in the snapshot aesthetic, in all the ways in which this breaks out of our convention, out of the golden age of longform, which really has never been more formulaic,” Sharlet said. “Instagram radically opens up who gets to tell stories by doing some of the same things for journalism that YouTube has done for video.”

As a longtime Instagram denizen, Shea said he’s noticed a few stylistic ruts on the platform — overly formal/journalistic, minimalist with one or two-word captions, or an extended highly personal quote from the person depicted. As a photo-centric app, its potential for writing had gone largely unexplored.

Shea and Sharlet decided that VQR, which they saw as a place that has always pushed the boundaries on content, was the place to go to hash out the creative potential of Instagram: Storied, 91-year-old literary journal with a high-brow readership meets social platform with a very young, diverse user base.

Other outlets have toyed with Instagram’s text element, though none as systematically as VQR. On the New Yorker Photo account, for instance, photographers frequently drop in to talk about their projects at length. Humans of New York posts stories told by their subjects. The UN Refugee Agency often shares detailed background stories.

“It’s fine for me and Neil to be messing around with it, but another thing for Paul to be committing real editorial resources to it,” Sharlet said. “After the year is over, VQR is going to have a library of this stuff, which will survive elsewhere long after Instagram as a corporation is dead. We’ll have a document we can look at to see how writing changed.”

Reyes was reluctant for me to read more deeply into the #VQRTrueStory project — is it a subscriber play for a small print magazine with a niche audience? An effort to grow digital readership? A way to generate fresh material for the print magazine? While any of those end results would certainly be welcome (at the start of the project VQR had 502 Instagram followers; it now has more than 900), the main point, he said, is that VQR is feeling out for itself the benefits and limitations of Instagram as a storytelling platform.

Reyes, Shea, and Sharlet are ironing out other questions along the way. If #VQRTrueStory on Instagram is supposed to represent the best of a general-interest magazine, what’s the best way to mix up the featured pieces so that there aren’t too many journalistic or slices-of-life posts in a row? What does it mean for a reader to see one of the posts on the VQR website, plucked from its original context in the Instagram feed?

“I just want to see where the form takes itself,” Reyes said. “I know that sounds gauzy and noncommittal, but I really do like the idea that this project would give the opportunity for certain practitioners to approach passion projects in a new way.”

Photograph of an Indian woman picking cotton taken by Meera Subramanian, used with permission from the Virginia Quarterly Review.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
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