An Election Day Instagram is worth a thousand tweets

As Americans go to the polls, many are pulling their smartphone out of their pockets and snapping photos of their voting experience. Just be careful about sharing photos of your ballot, some say.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
Instagram has been a very popular place to post election day photos. Screenshot by CNET

If there's been one sacred cow that's stood the test of time in America, it's the secrecy of a citizen's ballot. But in the age of Instagram, that cow has wandered straight off the farm.

Do a search for "Election2012" on Instagram today and there's no shortage of pictures of people's ballots. Or polling places, people's "I voted" stickers, and even Big Bird waiting to exercise his franchise. Whether they're excited that they voted -- maybe for the first time? -- or if they just want all the world to know who they picked, it's clear that a lot of people think Instagram is the obvious way to share their enthusiasm for the election.

Regardless of the fact that there seems to be a school of thought that Instagramming your ballot may be illegal, there's no doubt that the election, following immediately after Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast, is a big moment for the young photo-sharing service.

Users posted more than 10 Instagram photos per second during the storm, and yesterday, CEO Kevin Systrom said that all told, more than 800,000 photos were posted during the hurricane. It seems no one would be surprised if that number is easily surpassed today, as tens of millions of Americans choose the next president, many with an iPhone in their pocket. The service is so well established in the mainstream now, in fact, that The New York Times posted a feature filled with people's Instagrammed election day photos.

The New York Times featured Americans' Instagram photos from election day today. Screenshot by CNET

While there's no doubt that this year's election has been huge for other social services, most notably Twitter and Facebook, Instagram (now owned by Facebook) and other visual services (like Pinterest or Path) may offer the most visceral way of sharing the electricity that a lot of people clearly feel about voting. After all, a picture's worth a thousand words -- though no one has yet calculated a similar ratio between pictures and tweets.

For one thing, Instagram could hardly be easier to use. And since so many people are carrying smartphones with them wherever they go, there's almost no impediment to taking a quick snapshot and posting it for everyone to see. It may well take more time to choose the right filter than it does to take and post the photo.

As with content posted to most social networks, individual Instagram photos are hardly expected to be seen by millions of people. Rather, they are personal moments that users most likely expect will be seen by a few friends. It's quick, it's ephemeral, and then it's on to the next thing in life.

Yet because of searchable hashtags and the public nature of social postings, it's possible for the rest of the world to get a little peek into the lives of so many others, and on a day like today, that peek is more than likely to reveal a genuine enthusiasm and excitement shared across the country, from state to state to state, that crosses political allegiances, and that expresses, more than anything else, that Americans are proud to be able to take part in democracy.

"It's been both exciting and humbling to see how Instagram has been used over the last several months as a tool to tell the story of this election," Systrom said in a statement. "When we started building Instagram a couple years ago, we knew we wanted to build something that enabled people to both communicate through images as well as see a visual representation of what was going on in the world in real time. Seeing so many reporters, volunteers, and even the nominees themselves using Instagram on the trail has really reinforced that mission."

As with all things, the excitement of the election will soon pass, and Instagram, as well as all social services, will move on to the regular moments of people's normal lives. But for this one day, Americans everywhere shared an experience, and if there was one place more than any other to actually see what that experience looked like, it was Instagram.