State of the Scene: The Focused Community

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By Kerri Sullivan

Instagram was one of the first apps I downloaded onto my first iPhone in 2011. I initially followed mostly people I knew in real life, who posted under-lit photos of their frozen yogurt and heavily-filtered images of the city skyline. I used the app similarly—I liked the square format and the built-in filters, so I used Instagram to document everyday things like my cooking attempts, cats, and the beach. I wasn’t concerned with followers or using hashtags. I quickly grew bored with the app and stopped using it.

A year or so later, I gave Instagram another try. I started following inspiring strangers once I realized there were people on the app who were creating stunning images with their phones. I discovered editing apps like VSCOcam and Afterlight, and I found that there were some great alternatives to the Instagram filters that had started to look dated and cheesy. I realized that using hashtags isn’t just a ploy to get people to like your photos; they are useful tools that allow you to connect with others. I started thinking more about what kinds of photos I wanted to take and share through Instagram. It quickly became my favorite form of social media.

For a while, though, I was tentative when it came to connecting with Instagram users who also lived in New Jersey. I was taught as a young person never to share personal details with strangers on the Internet. I was also worried about rejection and about seeming creepy. What if I found, through hashtags and location pins, someone who seemed like a great potential friend? Was it okay to be like, “Hey, I love this restaurant too! Want to get lunch?” What if I did that, and then I was blocked or ignored, and then ran into the person in real life, only to have it be really weird? This thought pattern stressed me out and prevented me, for a long time, from trying to connect with people from my area.

Then one day, I started looking through NJ-centric hashtags like #thisisnj and #newjersey. And what I saw blew me away. It turned out that there were a lot of people in my home state who were putting out some amazing images on Instagram. It didn’t take long for me to realize that maybe I was wrong to be so anxious about interacting with them. I started following some people who were based near me, and suddenly, Instagram became an even better place to hang out. I loved opening up the app and seeing my favorite park or beach on display, and I loved sharing my work and getting nice comments from like-minded people.

One thing that makes Instagram special and worthwhile is that it’s truly an active hobby. Yes, it’s a form of social media, but in order to participate, you have to do something. You have to get outside and capture the sunset, spend time at your favorite beach, and see what a local history site has to offer. You have to arrange your frame, edit the image to your liking, and write a caption. Instagram users are obviously very diverse, but I’ve found that, in general, we’re an adventure-loving bunch. Hashtags like #keepexploring and #justgoshoot demonstrate that Instagram users all over the world value getting out and making things happen just as much as they like to scroll through their feeds to see what others have done.

I attended my first InstaMeet in March 2014, which was also the first time a meet was held in New Jersey. Darren Erbe (@darrenerbe) and Haley Decker (@thesecondgleam) hosted the event at Sandy Hook on what ended up being an unseasonably warm day. There were about 40 or 60 people in attendance. I remember driving up to the parking lot and seeing a crowd of people with cameras and feeling both excited to have found “my people” and nervous that people might be more standoffish in person than they were through the app. This was the first time I was taking some of these online friendships into the real world, so my fears about connecting with local people started flooding back.

But these concerns were dissolved as soon as I got out of my car and joined the group. The meet turned out to be a wonderful gathering of awesome people. It was great to put faces and real names to usernames, and I met a lot of people that day who have become real friends.

I brought to the meet a camera, my phone, and a bunch of postcards for a new project I had just launched called Jersey Collective (@jerseycollective). It is a collaborative Instagram account that a different New Jersey Instagrammer takes over each week. Anyone is allowed to participate, as long as they’re down to follow a few rules. Images must be created with smartphones only, taken in New Jersey, and can’t be reposts of old work. The result is that the Jersey Collective feed contains images from all over the state in different weather and seasons. The camera phone element keeps it fair for everyone – some people shoot exclusively with their phones already, and people with more professional equipment view using their phones as a fun challenge. Jersey Collective is an inclusive venture that strives to bring the New Jersey Instagram community together. The project gives anyone who’s willing a chance to show off their point of view of New Jersey for a week.
I started planning Jersey Collective in late 2013, during a time in my life when I was aching for a new creative challenge. I wanted to do something with Instagram because I was so excited by the growing community of people from New Jersey. I thought that finding these people and bringing them together was a worthwhile venture. I wanted to create a platform for these people to showcase their work and to showcase what makes New Jersey such a great place at the same time. New Jersey is frequently disparaged with jokes about highways and smells and Snooki. But our state has so much more to offer, as people who live here know, and Jersey Collective is a place to turn to for diverse and stunning images of every corner of New Jersey. The next time someone gives you a hard time about your hometown, just pull up our account and make them scroll through it.
It’s an exciting time to be an Instagram user in New Jersey. There are a ton of people in our state sharing incredible work, a bunch of great New Jersey-specific accounts, and a growing community of people who meet up in person to take photos together. The New Jersey Instagram community is real and thriving, and if you aren’t already one of us, you should get on board.

In addition to Jersey Collective, there are a lot of great ways to discover the world of New Jerseyans on Instagram. Some great active hashtags include #damnjerseyisthatyou, #just_newjersey, #thisisnj, #njisallgood, and #jerseygrammers. Just New Jersey (@just_newjersey) is an account that shares images from users who tag their photos with #just_newjersey. The account moderators look through the hashtag several times a day in search of standout images to repost on Just New Jersey. Following their account is a great way to discover local Instagrammers, and using the tag can help people find you. Other accounts that do something similar include NJ Woods (@newjerseywoods) using #njwoods, NJ Is All Good (@njisallgood) using #njisallgood, and IG_NewJersey(@ig_newjersey) using #IG_NEWJERSEY.

Instagrammers in other states have been doing some cool things, too, and I would like to see similar opportunities happen for those of us in New Jersey. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recognizes the value of this community and sometimes invites Instagrammers to come to the museum when it’s closed for what’s become known as #emptymet. The tourism office of Philadelphia, Visit Philly, has helped provide Instagrammers special access to museums and historic sites in order to raise awareness of great places and to entice people to check them out. I think that as our New Jersey community grows, we’ll see more cultural institutions choose to use Instagram as a tool of access and awareness, and they’ll invite members of our community to help them do so.

Local businesses are using Instagram as a tool for promotion and connection. Your favorite coffee shop might have an account where they show the behind-the-scenes of making coffee, introduce the baristas, or offer exclusive coupons. Because of a photo I posted last summer, I had my dessert comped at my favorite ice cream parlor. Darren (@darrenerbe) recently won a year of free apple cider doughnuts from Delicious Orchards through an Instagram contest. I think these kinds of opportunities will continue to be popular with business owners who are discovering that engaging with users using this tool can be rewarding for everyone involved.
I love being a part of this thriving scene—there are opportunities to get involved with the scene both on and off the screen. When I began to use Instagram as a way to connect with people from my area, I found a community. As the leader of Jersey Collective, I am proud to cultivate a space that lets people in and combats the negative perception of our state through the work of New Jerseyans from many towns and with varied backgrounds. Together, we are proving that there’s an endless supply of things worth looking at in New Jersey.

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Feature Photo by Catalina Fragoso

This article first appeared in Issue 05