The big news of the week is Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. I wasn’t going to write anything about it because it didn’t seem like there’s much to say that hasn’t already been said, but that may not be the case. For general commentary, I would recommend Paul “@ftrain” Ford’s Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. I want to talk about something specific — Instagram’s filters.
I was on the fence about posting about it, but after The Daily Show made fun of it this week, I felt compelled to do so. I’m not in the business if picking apart jokes, but I see the sentiments in the Daily Show piece reflected frequently in serious commentary as well, and for the sake of all of you out there who are about to start building your own photo sharing apps in hopes of hauling in a huge bag of loot, I want to make sure you don’t emphasize the wrong things.
There are a bunch of iPhone apps that enable you to apply silly filters to your photos, and they are popular. Instagram’s filters are a “me too” feature that seemed to decline in use over time. If you look at the “Popular” tab in Instagram on any given day, you’ll find that photos with retro filters were rarely seen.
What works about Instagram is that it fosters deeper connection between people who are friends on the service and makes it easy to “meet” new people through their photos.
The interface encourages people to share photos one at a time, rather than uploading them in big batches, unlike most other services. The prominence of the “like” feature encourages people to compliment other people’s photos and to publish photos that other people will like, driving the overall quality of the photos on the service up. Unlike the photos people usually post to Twitter or to Facebook, photos on Instagram tend to be composed somewhat thoughtfully.
Instagram makes it easy to see the photos that your friends have liked, which facilitates finding more interesting people to follow. Following is also lightweight, as it is on Twitter. The result is that it’s easy to grow your network on Instagram. Looking at the photos a person takes every day feels more personal than reading their updates on Twitter. You learn about the way they see the world.
Why did Instagram sell for a billion dollars? Not because of novelty filters, but because it provided a compelling place to look at good photos taken by people you care about, and to find new, interesting people and develop relationships with them.