Big pictures are hard to find on the Internet. There are a lot of little pictures—happy-hour selfies, GIFs from last night’s political debate, thumbnails from photojournalists attached to news stories—but as soon as some pattern becomes perceptible in the deluge, social networks have a way of erasing the pattern through an infinite churn of reinterpretation and novelty. Lev Manovich was one of the first theorists to attempt to pull some meaning from the flood of the Internet.

The Russian theorist and City University of New York professor’s 2001 book, The Language of New Media, helped build a philosophical framework for understanding what was happening to culture as it merged with computer screens and the things powering them. He described the Internet as “a communal apartment [of] the Stalin area; everybody spies on everybody else, [an] always present line for common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen.”

Manovich's latest project is an attempt to build an archive for Instagram, to change its stream interface into a searchable catalog to see if there’s anything worth seeing in the profusion of things to look at. Since 2012 he’s downloaded 15 million Instagram images from 15 cities around the world. When finished, the research will be compiled in a new book about Instagram and digital photography, the first two chapters of which have been published on his website. We spoke with Manovich to talk about the patterns visible on Instagram and what the suggest about how these images are shaping our brains.

A year or so ago, my parents gave me a big collection of old photographs from my childhood and their early adult years. They seem much more open about the fact that the subjects in the photo had limited power to define how the photos would be interpreted. Now it seems much more about documenting an active and controllable fantasy of the self. Are there fundamentally different influences driving the way people use Instagram than the way people used film cameras?
My first illustration in the book is a random collection of screenshots from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and what you immediately realize is how codified they are by conventions that dictate what is important to capture and how it should be captured. You photograph a group of people in the center, or a person in front of her house, or you photograph people traveling. There are particular ways to do it and particular ways to not do it.

I keep finding, like, 12 year olds in Siberia who are as sophisticated in their photography as top professional photographers working for magazines.

I did an informal survey of Instagram photos in London, and what I found is that, if you look at the center of London—which is a good place to look because you have people from everywhere—about 80 percent of photographs is what I would call casual photography. They’re similar to photographs from your youth, or from the ‘50s or ‘60s. People don’t care much about the aesthetics; they care about the content. You photograph something because it’s going to be important to you, or to your family, or maybe to your friends. Whether you get a lot of likes doesn’t seem to be the key factor. We have about 10 percent of photographs where people try to be very professional—they photograph a lot of details, a lot of landscapes. And then there’s about 10 percent of what I call design photography, or style photography, which is something more urban, more contemporary, more minimal, with lots of negative space.

What’s amazing about these photographs is I keep finding, like, 12 year olds in Siberia who are as sophisticated in their photography as top professional photographers working for magazines. Instagram is like a school where teenagers are learning very sophisticated ways of communicating.

Were you able to access any kind of data about private accounts, or see trends particular to private accounts?
I don’t have an exact number, but people have tried to analyze the number of open accounts versus private accounts—it changes every six months, but I think it’s about 30 percent. But that was from two years ago, so it may be different now. It’s probably also different from place to place. Imagine if you had access, not just to Instagram, but to every photo someone takes on their phone. This would be totally fascinating.

The last thing we’ve done, where we can look very informally, is what percentage of photos are unedited. For London, that turned out to be 80 percent, which actually means that there are definitely people who treat their pictures like art directors, but it’s maybe 10 or 15 percent of users. That doesn’t mean these pictures are completely random, because, as we discussed earlier, when you choose to take a photograph, there are always conventions that people follow, like what should you photograph and how. But there's lots of randomness, too. It’s not an either/or—everything is there, from the most controlled to the most random, and everything in between. That’s what makes it fascinating, that you can’t reduce it to one simple idea.

People are exposed to thousands of images every day through advertising, and then Instagram on top of that—how come your brain is not exploding?

It seems like we’re becoming a bit self-aware of the larger databases that our images fit into. Do you think that self-awareness and the massive increase in ability to capture and control images has devalued the cultural value of the image?
It goes in waves. In the ‘90s, when people started using early Internet cams and doing performances that were pretty raw—you couldn’t really aesthetisize them. Now there are millions of images and everyone can take them, which of course will devalue them. But it goes in circles. In the second chapter of my book, I look at Irving Penn photography and it looks very much like Instagram.

People are exposed to thousands of images every day through advertising, and then Instagram on top of that—how come your brain is not exploding? I have this idea that, let’s say you’re seeing 3,000 images every day, partly from advertising or PR and partly from Instagram—but it’s actually pleasurable. You’re not feeling discomfort. And it's because, in reality, you’re not seeing every one of those 3,000 images—you’re seeing image types. I think this has been going on for a while in advertising. If you look at stock photography, at how “work” or “high-tech” is represented, you'll probably find a woman in glasses in front of a computer. Basically my idea is that people create all kinds of images—more than ever—but these images follow a small number of image types, and your brain recognizes the image types. What you’re enjoying is actually the variation between types. You’re not seeing the full image every time, and I think this is why it’s not driving you crazy. This explosion of images is forcing us to ask some questions of history.

Is that the ultimate currency of Instagram? The ability, not just edit individual images, but to control the types and archival structures one’s images gradually begin to make?
As soon as I started to study this I noticed you have some Instagram accounts that have maybe 50,000 followers and brands will send them gifts and they have to put the picture on their account. It’s blending Instagram as identity forming with the commercial. I noticed that people with that many followers will have like 1,500 photographs—and then they'll go and delete all their photographs and start over. It seems to be a strategy that a lot of professional Instagrammers follow. They’re systematically deleting the archive. I think the archive is a very paradoxical thing. With Instagram we don’t even put the date, we say this image is two weeks old or two hours old. Everything is happening around the moment, which is now, and what happens is you can’t really look at this archive because you don’t have search. You can look at recent images, but you can’t really look at the whole archive to see the trends, and that’s exactly what we tried to do in our lab. The social networks developed so far are very much about the single timeline—what I call timeline interfaces—they’re no longer databases; and yet nobody has a way to look at this together.