I have a new favorite toy, one you can only play with if you have an iThingy (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad). But you can enjoy the results without one (to a limited degree).

The toy is Instagram, an iThingy application. What you do is take a picture with your iThingy, open it in Instagram, drag it around to frame it, apply one of several pre-set filters (or not) to make your photo look all artsy or vintage, and save. At that point you have the option to publish the photo to any number of sites like Flickr and Twitter, or you can just keep it private.

Here’s a before and after I did. The original has decent composition and color and some nice light and shadow, but it’s rather mundane and drab.

Drag it around in the square frame on Instagram, resize it, choose a filter, and you have a little work of art:

I’m publishing all of mine to Tumblr (also Flickr, but I created the Tumblr site as soon as I got near 200 pics; Flickr makes you pay for more than that) because Instagram doesn’t provide online user galleries. When you publish a link to a picture on Twitter, for example, people who click it are taken to a web page, but from there they can’t see the rest of your photos (or follow you, or do anything, for that matter, which kinda blows). The pictures, if you don’t publish and store them somewhere, are pretty much lost in the ether, which is a shame because some of them are amazing.

You can only browse other Instagram photos on your iThingy. You can browse “popular” photos (who knows how they determine popularity), or you can follow specific people and see their photos.

Instagram is a nice change of pace for me, since I tend to be most comfortable with verbal expression. Getting creative with the visual is refreshing from time to time, which is why Photoshop is another fave toy. (I combine the two Vs on everyday splendor, my prose-oet-ography blog.)

But Instagram is much more than a toy. There are two things about it that really make my heart swell. First, seeing pictures taken by people all over the world, being privy to moments friends and semi-friends and total strangers find exceptional enough to record and share, really makes you hyper aware of the beating heart of humanity on this planet. The other six-plus billion souls cease to be an abstraction when you see that somebody is living a moment in a dusty street in a Korean village or on a beach at sunset while you sleep or wash dishes. It’s exhilarating, extraordinarily moving and, on some level, reassuring. When the “other” becomes real, we’re less likely to destroy him. The same concept is in action when the mother of the abducted child goes on TV and says her name over and over and talks about her hobbies and favorite color. She becomes a person in the mind of the psycho who took her and is more likely to survive. The world could use a dose of this. (This is exactly why I’m an Internet evangelist.)

Second, Instagram puts the tools for creating something beautiful in the hands of Average Jane, which is more significant than it might seem to you at first glance. You see, I also believe that when you cultivate your sensitivity to beauty and engage in the act of creating things of beauty yourself, it elevates you. You are more fulfilled, enlightened, open — simply a better human being. (The French know this, one of the things I love about this culture.) Technology, when it can help make a human more human, is sublime.

I plan to find people to follow on every continent, and in as many countries as I can. It will be a treasure hunt. I found one in Asia today (don’t know what language that is, but I’ll get it figured out).

Part of the big attraction of apps like these for both young and old is that you can make your photos look vintage. Some of us (and our photos) are already vintage, so we don’t really need an app for that…

A similar app, Hipstamatic, is much more about community, and looks like it has a wider range of effects for your pictures. I just bought it, and played with it for a few seconds. Looks a lot more complicated, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to tackle the learning curve. At least not today. Hipstamatic has been around a while and created quite a buzz, but I didn’t get it sooner because it’s not free. I don’t generally pay for apps unless I’m sure I’ll use them. (You know I’m a bad little consumer, the kind who thinks before spending.) Anyway, considering the fun I’ve had with Instagram, I’m pretty sure I’ll get my $1.59’s worth out of Hipstamatic.

If you’re using Instagram, look me up: pamela_poole.