Ho boy, rarely have I copped more flak for a post both online and offline than my piece early last year on how the general population of Instagram made me feel. In all honesty whilst I knew there were a few people it would piss off, which was one of the reasons it sat in my drafts folder for ages, I still felt like I had some valid points to make based on my observations based around the Instagram user base at large. Many people took offence to this, arguing points ranging from “Why should that matter to you anyway?” to “You’re using it wrong, there’s great communities on there”. I was hoping that the comments section would have been the end of all of it but late last week the topic came up again and I lost an hour in the ensuing debate so I figured it was time I made my position on this whole matter more clear.
I recognise that for every example I can dredge up of someone posting a horribly framed and filtered picture of their breakfast someone else can just as easily show me something like this. My criticism wasn’t levelled at people who use the service in this fashion but reading back over the post and the ensuing comments I never really made that entirely clear, so mea culpa on that one. However I don’t feel that the general thrust of my argument has been invalidated by that as many users agree that the vast majority of stuff on Instagram isn’t particularly great. This isn’t unique to Instagram however as any user generated content site suffers from Sturgeon’s Law and honestly the mentality of users on said sites really doesn’t vary that much but Instagram hit closer to home thanks to my interest in this particular area.
I’ve also had people try to bring me back into the Instagram fold in order to convince me that there’s something in the platform for me. Now whilst I wasn’t an active user for quite some time I did have the application installed on my Galaxy S2 for the better part of the year, mostly so I could view pictures linked to me on Twitter without having to use Instagram’s then rather shitty web interface. From time to time I’d look at pictures on there and see some genuinely good ones but not often enough to convince me that it was worth investing my time to better my feed by subscribing to said users. The fact of the matter is I already have many other avenues for discovering photographers that I like, ones that share a critical characteristic with.
Our preferred platform of choice.
For me the undisputed platform of choice is my DSLR. I’ve tried many other camera systems from high end point and shoots, film SLRs and yes multitudes of cameras in phones but in the end I always end up coming back to my DSLR. The reasoning behind this is because of the amount of control and influence I have over the final image, something which I struggle with on any other platform. It may sound weird if you prefer the simplicity that’s granted to you by camera phones (something which I do understand) but I find it a lot easier to take pictures on my DSLR, to the point where using anything else just frustrates me. I think that’s because I know that whilst I can do a lot of things in post should I so desire there are some things I simply can’t unless I’m using my preferred platform of choice.
This is somewhat at odds with the Instagram community which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t take particularly kindly to those who take photos outside of their phone and then upload them via the service. If I was going to use Instagram again that’s the way I would use it but I’d rather not antagonize the community further by breaking the current social norm on there. For now I really only use Facebook to distribute pictures (mostly because my recent photographic endeavours have involved friend’s weddings) but I’ve been a fan of Flickr and 500px for a long time now as they seem to be more my kind of people.
I’ve come to realise that even my beloved DSLR community isn’t immune to this kind of malarkey either as there are far, far too many people who I walking around with a $1000+ camera with the shocking kit lens on it shooting in auto thinking that they’re the next Don McCullin. The criticisms I’ve levelled at Instagram apply to them as well although they’ve yet to congregate onto a platform that’s as ubiquitous as Instagram has become.
After the backlash I received I set myself a challenge to try and use my camera phone to produce pictures that I’d be proud to share and the above is probably one of the dozens I’ve taken that’s anywhere near what I wanted it to be. 6 months of trying have shown me there’s definitely a lot of effort required into creating good pictures, arguably the same amount as required by using a DSLR, but I still feel like I’m constrained by my phone. Maybe that’s a personal thing, something that I could overcome with more time and dedication, but in saying that I’d propose the same thing to all the Instagrammers out there. Borrow a friends DSLR and see the world from our side. Maybe you’ll come away with an appreciation for the technology that helped give birth to the platform you so love today.
One of the peeves I had with the official Twitter client on Windows Phone 7, something I didn’t mention in my review of the platform, was that among the other things that its sub-par at (it really is the poor bastard child of its iOS/Android cousins) it couldn’t display images in-line. In order to actually see any image you have to tap the tweet then the thumbnail in order to get a look at it, which usually loads the entire large image which isn’t required on smaller screens. The official apps on other platforms were quite capable of loading appropriate sized images in the feed which was a far better experience, especially considering it worked for pretty much all of the image sharing services.
Everyone knows there’s no love lost between Instagram and I but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow people who use it. As far back as I can remember their integration in the mobile apps has left something to be desired, especially if you want to view the full sized image which usually redirected you to their atrocious web view. Testing it for this post showed that they’ve vastly improved that experience which is great, especially considering I’m still on Windows Phone 7 which was never able to preview Instagram anyway, but it seems that this improvement may have come as part of a bigger play from Instagram trying to claw back their users from Twitter.
Reports are coming in far that Instagram has disabled their Twitter card integration which stops Twitter from being able to display the images directly in the feed like they have been doing since day 1. Whilst I don’t seem to be experiencing the issue that everyone is reporting (as you can see from the devastatingly cute picture above) there are many people complaining about this and Instagram has stated that disabling this integration is part of their larger strategy to provide a better experience through their platform. Part of that was improve the mobile web experience which I mentioned earlier.
It’s an interesting move because for those of us who’ve been following both Twitter and Instagram for a while the similarities are startling. Twitter has been around for some 6 years and it spent the vast majority of that being a company that was extraordinarily open with its platform, encouraging developers far and wide to come in and develop on their platform. Instagram, whilst not being as wide open as Twitter was, did similar things making their product integrate tightly with Twitter’s ecosystem whilst encouraging others to develop on it. Withdrawing from Twitter in favour of their own platform is akin to what Twitter did to potential client app developers, essentially signalling to everyone that it’s our way or the highway.
The cycle is eerily similar, both companies started out as small time players that had a pretty dedicated fan base (although Instagram grew like a weed in comparison to Twitter’s slow ride to the hockey stick) and then after getting big they start withdrawing all the things that made them great. Arguably much of Instagram’s growth came from its easy integration with Twitter where many of the early adopters already had large followings and without that I don’t believe they would’ve experienced the massive growth they did. Disabling this functionality seems like they’re shooting themselves in the foot with the intention of attempting some form of monetization eventually (that’s the only reason I can think of for trying to drive users back to the native platform) but I said the same thing about Twitter when they pulled that developer stunt, and they seem to be doing fine.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this is what happens when start ups hit the big time because at that point they have to start thinking seriously about where they’re going. For giant sites like Instagram that are still yet to turn a profit from the service they provide it’s inevitable that they’d have to start fundamentally changing the way they do business and this is most likely just the first step in wider sweeping changes. I’m still wondering how Facebook is going to turn a profit from this investment as they’re $1 billion in the hole and there’s no signs of them making that back any time soon.
I’m a kinda-sorta photography buff, one who’s passion is only restrained by his rigid fiscal sensibility and lack of time to dedicate to taking pictures. Still I find the time to keep up with the technology and I usually find myself getting lost in a sea of lenses, bodies and various lighting rigs at least once a month simply because the tech behind getting good photographs is deeply intriguing. Indeed whenever I see a good photograph on the Internet I’m always fascinated by the process the photographer went through to create it, almost as much as I am when it comes to the tech.
Such a passion is at odds with the recently Facebook acquired app Instagram (or any of those filter picture apps).
To clear the air first yes I have an account on there and yes there are photos on it. To get all meta-hipster on your asses for a second I was totally into Instagram (then known as Burbn) before it was even known as that, back when it was still a potential competitor to my fledgling app. Owing then to my “better get on this bandwagon early” mentality back then I created an account on Instagram and used the service as it was intended: to create faux-artistic photos by taking bad cell phone pictures and then applying a filter to them. My usage of it stopped when I made the switch to Android last year and for a time I was wondering when it would come to my new platform of choice.
It did recently but in that time between then and now I came to realise that there really is nothing in the service that I can identify with. For the vast majority of users it serves as yet another social media platform, one where they can show case their “talent” to a bunch of like minded people (or simply followers from another social media platform following them to the platform du’jour). In reality all that Instagram does is auto-tune bad cell phone pictures, meaning that whilst they might be visually appealing (as auto-tuned songs generally are) they lack any substance thanks to their stock method of creation. The one thing they have going for them is convenience since you always have your phone with you but at the same time that’s why most of the photos on there are of mundane shit that no one really cares about (mine included).
To be fair I guess the issue I have isn’t so much with the Instagram service per say, probably more with the people who use it. When I see things like this guide as to which filter to use (which I’m having a hard time figuring out whether its an elaborate troll or not) I can’t help but feel that the users somehow think that they’ve suddenly become wonderful photographers by virtue of their phone and some filters. Should the prevailing attitude not be the kind of snobbish, hipster-esque douchery that currently rules the Insatgram crowd I might have just ignored the service rather than ranting about it.
From a business point of view the Instagram acquisition by Facebook doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. It’s the epitome of the business style that fuelled the dot com bust back in the early 2000’s: a company with a hell of a lot of social proof but no actual revenue model (apart from getting more investors) gets snapped up by a bigger company looking to either show that it’s still trying to expand (Facebook in this case) or a dying company hoping that it can revive itself through acquisitions. Sure for a potential $100 billion company lavishing 1% of your worth on a hot new startup will seem like peanuts but all they’ve done is buy a cost centre, one that Facebook has said they have no intention of mucking with (good for the users, potentially bad for Facebook’s investors).
Instagram produces nothing of merit and using it does not turn one from a regular person into some kind of artist that can produce things with any merit. Seriously if you want to produce those kinds of pictures and not be a total dick about it go and grab the actual cameras and try to recreate the pictures. If that sounds like too much effort then don’t consider yourself a photographer or an artist, you’re just a kid playing with a photography set and I shall treat the pictures you create as such.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to build something you think is simple that ends up being a complicated mess. Us engineers are amongst the most common offenders in this regard, often taking a simple idea and letting the feature creep run out of hand until the original idea is coated in 10 layers of additional functionality. I’d say that this is partly due to our training as modular design and implementation was one of the core engineering principles that was drill into me from day 1 although to be fair they also taught us how quickly the modular idea fell apart if you took it too far. There’s also the innate desire to cram as much functionality as you can into your product or service as that would make it appear more appealing to the end user, however that’s not always the case.
When Geon was starting out I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do: see what was going on in a certain location. That in itself is a pretty simple idea and the first revisions reflected that, although that was probably due to my lack of coding experience more than anything else. As time went on I got distracted by other things that forced me away from my pet project and upon return I had one of those brainwaves for improving Geon in ways I had not yet considered. This lead to the first version that actually had a login and a whole host of other features, something I was quite proud of. However it lacked focus, was confusing to use and ultimately whilst it satisfied some of the core vision it wasn’t anything more than a few RSS feeds tied together in a silverlight front end with a badly coded login and messaging framework hidden under the deluge of other features.
Something needed to change and thus Lobaco was born.
Increasingly I’m seeing that simplicity is the key to creating an application that users will want to use. On a recent trip to Adelaide my group of friends decided to use Beluga to co-ordinate various aspects of the trip. Beluga really only does one thing, group messaging, but it does it so well and in such a simple way that we constantly found ourselves coming back to it. Sure many of the functions are already covered off by say SMS or an online forum but having a consistent view for all group members that just plain worked made organizing our band of bros that much easier. It’s this kind of simplicity that keeps me coming back to Instagr.am as well, even though there’s similar levels of functionality included in the Twitter client (apart from the filters).
Keeping an idea simple all sounds like it would be easy enough but the fact that so many fail to do so show how hard it is to refine a project down to its fundamental base in order to develop a minimum viable product. Indeed this is why I find time away from developing my projects to be nearly as valuable as the time I spend with them as often it will get me out of the problem space I’ve been operating in and allow me to refine the core idea. I’ve also found myself wanting simple products in lieu of those that do much more just because the simple ones tend to do it better. This has started to lead me down the interesting path of finding things I think I can do better by removing the cruft from a competing product and I have one to test out once I get the first iteration of the Lobaco client out of the way.
I guess that will be the true test to see if simplicity and focus are things customers desire, and not just geeks like me.