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Students travel the country to promote community among Instagram users

August 20, 2012 : By Drew Menard/Liberty University News Service

Liberty students Ryan Carl (left), and Jody Johnston (right), along with fellow Pilgramer Thomas Fischer (middle), spent their summer documenting a nationwide pilgrimage they used to promote community among Instagram users.

Two Liberty University students embarked on a summer-long quest to foster community across the nation, using the photo sharing social media platform Instagram to unite people of common interest.

Jody Johnston, a senior studying advertising and Ryan Carl, a sophomore marketing student, have merged their business-savvy and passion for people to form the Pilgramers, a group that seeks to bring Instagramers together for the purpose of building relationships and having fun in the process.

Johnston and Carl have spent their summer traveling from city to city, across the U.S. — including Charlotte, New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, and Dallas — exploring and invoking community through Instagram and creating documentary episodes along the way. Carl is the director and videographer for the documentary and Johnston is the host. Their videos can be viewed on the Pilgramers YouTube channel.

With Pilgramers, they organize Instameets, which are gatherings of Instagramers in which people are connected and spend the day taking snapshots together and getting to know one another. Destinations and locations for the Instameets are sometimes decided upon spontaneously and Johnston and Carl have allowed Instagramers to suggest where they will take place.

Johnston said that through these Instameets he sees people connecting who have common interests and beliefs, and these people are being encouraged because of it. His goal is that these relationships will develop and begin to change people’s lives.

“It is about bringing people together to foster love, to foster support with each other,” Johnston said. “Liberty has instilled in me since day one that we need to seek after a world change. Whatever ideas, whatever pursuits we have, they really do not matter unless they are eternal.”

He said that in meeting new people every day, he has been given opportunities to promote Liberty, and more importantly, to share the love of Jesus.

The Pilgramers ventured from Virginia to Seattle, down the West Coast and back, making several stops along the way.

Through their social media campaign, the Pilgramers have garnered much attention — with more than 17,000 views on the Pilgramers’ pilot video and nearly 17,000 on its first episode — so much so that leadership at Instagram, including its CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom, asked them to visit its headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. The Pilgramers were interviewed and featured on the Instagram blog and got to spend the day interacting with the staff.

Systrom was moved by what the Pilgramers are doing and said that they reminded him how mobile photography can connect people unlike anything else, according to Johnston.

The idea for Pilgramers formed after the pair’s video “Stuff Instagramers Say” went viral. It currently has 143,000 views and rising on YouTube. The video’s success spurred them to brainstorm new ideas. While creating a sequel video, the theme of community between Instagramers became increasingly apparent and Johnston and Carl quickly changed course.

“Instagram has had an influential part in a lot of people’s lives through connecting with others and also being influenced and encouraged (and) challenging each other through the photos they have made,” Johnston said.

They visited a few major cities across the Eastern U.S., including Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn., interviewing several Instagramers, including singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and celebrity photographer and humanitarian Jeremy Cowart, who uses Instagram to supplement his professional work.

After the circuit, they created the Pilgramers’ pilot video and decided to travel the nation, hoping to expand this idea of community. Along the way they added Thomas Fischer of Farmville, Va., to help with sound and editing, and photographer Tim Landis of Duluth, Minn., (a top 100 Instagramer), to the team.

Carl said he and Johnston see Instagram as more than a social media platform.

“Global photography is really decentralizing. With Instagram, people can take really high quality photos and release them instantly to a greater demographic of people.”

He said this is revolutionizing the advertising industry.

The duo’s forward-thinking mindset has led them to form a partnership with Instapparel, who they will work with to bring advertising and marketing into the future. They have not given any further details on the project, but plan to start working with Instapparel in the fall, while they continue their studies at Liberty.

Johnston and Carl will continue organizing Instameets across the country on their school breaks and occasionally in communities near Lynchburg and along the East Coast on weekends.