Alli Harvey: Sometimes, life looks better through Instagram's filters

I was incredibly late to the Instagram party.

At first I was late because I'm always behind on all things pop culture. For instance, my 11-year-old stepdaughter will say: "I would like a cuddly fuzzy bear backpack creature for my birthday, please." I will ask, "Sure, but what is that?" She fixes me with one of those stares that, if it were in a book, would foreshadow her teenage self. "You ... don't know what a cuddly fuzzy bear backpack creature™ is?"

When Instagram, the photo editing and sharing service, first came around I didn't understand why my Facebook news feed was suddenly filled with Polaroid snapshots. Photos posted by my friends used to look straightforward -- if a sunset was stunning you could tell, if a glacier was an ethereal blue it stood out on its own. These new photos were clearly edited. Some had borders. Photos of friends or family might have the glowing tinge of a snapshot from long ago, as though there was sunlight streaming in through dusty attic air. Sunsets appeared more brilliant; glaciers were "more" blue.

When I remember moments with people I love, or times I've been in beautiful places at just the right time, the pictures I have in my mind are probably better than they were in real life. It doesn't matter, because these images are only for me. But the photos on Facebook looked exactly like that -- they look the way I remember experiences, not how I see them in the moment.

When I found out my friends were using the Instagram phone app to apply filters to their photos, I found myself disdainful. Maybe my initial dislike was because I hadn't been an early adopter. I decided to take my un-cool into my own hands by staying away, continuing to post plain ol' photos because I felt they were more true to life. I didn't need filters to make my adventures look better, I thought.

Then last winter happened.

November was rough for me. The days felt too short, too fast. It seemed to take too long for it to snow. When it finally snowed, the days were even shorter. Like much of Anchorage, I found myself too busy at work to leave for some daylight at lunch, and I commuted both ways under a dark sky.

I needed something to transform my experience of Anchorage. One evening on a whim, the way so many stances in life are abandoned, I downloaded Instagram to my phone. I was tired of fighting it, and curious if it could help me translate my urban, winter world into something less dreary.

I took photos of orange streetlamps glowing, orb-like, through snowy branches. The blues of the ice, Inlet, and snow contrasted nicely with the early red sunsets. Ice floes appeared sharper. The criss-cross of skate ski tracks on trails formed clean lines when I applied the correct filter. As I posted photos, "likes" from Instagram followers poured in from Anchorage and beyond. I was encouraged to do more.

This is how taking my phone with me on adventures became requisite. I've always loved taking photos, but I found that using Instagram to help me find inspiration to do something worth remembering. If I didn't have my phone with me, I didn't have a way of visually ticking off the adventures that added up to a good winter. It actually helped me get outside.

Now, as Anchorage swings into summer, I continue to take photos. I don't rely on them to enhance my experience, since it's so gorgeous outside with or without a filter, but I am still in the habit of Instagramming. I do it almost every day.

However, here is the downside: I think I've become less able to enjoy experiences in the moment. Take this past winter, for instance, when I needed help seeing Anchorage in a more positive light. Using pretty filters, snappy captions and the occasional tongue-in-cheek hashtag, I transformed what I actually saw in Anchorage into something more beautiful. I wasn't learning how to be a part of the winter and enjoy it as much as I was marketing it. I marketed Anchorage winter to myself and to my "followers."

People liked it. It helped me get through some long months. But is using technology to bait myself outdoors, and then subtly lying about the experience by applying a bunch of filters to a shared photo, really the best life strategy for getting through rough times? I don't know. Somehow, I don't think so.

Overall, I like and accept Instagram. At its best, it helps me, and others, see and capture beauty in our day-to-day lives. At its worst, it is an addictive toy. That said, I am now a wholehearted -- if still questioning --adopter. It may not be in my life forever, but for now things are looking good.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage, you can find her on Instagram at aharvshow.