One of the perpetual criticisms of social media — especially Instagram — is that an account eventually becomes an avatar, a combined self-and-other preened to display only the good: Shiny-hair days. Curated meals. Glamorous or not glamorous but “rugged” travel. Nobody, the aphorism goes, is elucidating anything particularly painful or ugly; bad moods or breakups or mental breakdowns don’t make it to the feed.
Except, actually, they often do. For me what’s troubling about Instagram isn’t the mediated artifice — which is not unlike anything else — but the onslaught: there is simply too much, and it’s easy to get stuck scrolling, comparing, exhausting. The Swedish photographer Martin Adolfsson and Canadian scientist Daniel J. Wilson, inventors of Minutiae, a newish app, plug their product as an “anti-social media app,” and while that’s not untrue — there are no friends or followers, and you can’t share a single thing whenever you’d like — it’s best compared in opposition to nothing. Minutiae offers a momentary glimpse into the lives of strangers, fleeting and whimsical and a lot of fun. It is, says Adolfsson, an opportunity “to give participants an intimate view into a random stranger’s life during a one-minute window every day.” The moment you spend with it is a literal one.
Minutiae, its name, refers to the literal minutiae of life, but also to minutes: there are 1,440 of them in a day, 60 seconds that many times over in the span of 24 hours. Here’s how it works: at some minute in the day — selected at random — users will get an alert: “Time to capture your moment.” You’ve got exactly 60 seconds to capture (or rearrange and then capture) what’s in front of you. The image is saved to the app; for the remainder of the minute, you scroll through other (anonymous) users’ quick-captured moments, around the world: a pre-Raphaelite painting on a wall in Kadikoy, Turkey, a tree in Vääsky, Finland, a blur of a limb back in Kadikoy, again.
The app’s main screen is a grid of precisely 1,440 squares. Every photo you take becomes a thumbnail, but you can’t open it again — it’s just there, tiny. You can’t look at anyone else’s images, either, except during the minute-span of the alert, right after you snap yours. “There are 1,440 minutes in one day and the alert occurs once a day, so it will take each participant 1,440 days to complete their own cycle,” Adolfsson explains. “Once a participant has completed their 1,440-day cycle, they will be able to download a high-resolution version of all their images — but only their own.” There will also be a limited-edition book, available on a first come-first served basis, “for collectors who want to have a physical version of all their own images taken with the app.”
If you miss the alert and capture no moment, the thumbnail is a black square — which probably won’t appear in your book, should you choose to get one of those — and as long as I’ve been using the app, I’ve missed it often. In my time zone, they’ve lately been arriving in the middle of the night. Whenever I catch the alert, though, it feels sweet and ephemeral to scroll through the random instances of strangers — 60 or 30 seconds is not long enough to compose a photo, I think, and so users tend to point and shoot. The shots are exquisitely boring, which I like; in the end, it seems like the images will construct a constellation of the memory: I was looking at that plant in the fall. At that mustard stain in the spring.
Worth noting: It is, unfortunately, $14.99 to download at the moment, though the app’s FAQ section does a good job explaining where that money goes. “The challenge,” Adolfsson tells me, “was to figure out a way that would allow participants to be honest with themselves and that actually captured ordinary moments.” Maybe Minutiae succeeds at this, but I don’t like it for its honesty, nor for its lack of artifice — I can easily avoid snapping a photo when I’m doing something boring. What’s better is the interconnectivity between users around the globe: briefly comforting, totally transitory. Like strangers passing each other on the street.