"We're no longer a photosharing app," Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, a division of Facebook.
Let’s face it: everything Facebook touches eventually turns into an engagement honeypot behind which lies an algorithmic whirlpool designed to suck attention that can be packaged and eventually sold to advertisers. And that is why I am not surprised that Instagram is moving on from its photography roots. And why not: it had to keep up the likes of TikTok, who are sucking attention away from Instagram. Not surprisingly, many photographers feel a little double-crossed. Hey, welcome to Zuck’s Planet.
However, for two big tech refugees, Tom Watson and Stefan Borsje, this is an opportunity: they have created Glass, a photographer-focused community and photosharing service whose primary focus in photos and a community-focused on the art of photography. (For now, it is available only on Apple’s iOS.)
After Instagram, I had told myself that I wouldn’t put any energy into a photo app. And yet, I have been using the app for nearly six months. What made me change my mind? I would let Tom (Watson) tell you in his words. Here is an edited version of an interview (that was conducted as an email exchange.)
Om: Tom, tell us a bit about yourself and what prompted you to start Glass.
Tom Watson (TW): I’ve been designing digital products for over 20 years now. I was an early Product Designer at Facebook (2009-2013) and Pinterest (2013-2018). I saw the tradeoffs firsthand around having to design for engagement versus people using the product. That experience made me want to build something different.
I was a big Flickr user in the late ’00s and just loved the community formed there. It died out, and that community fractured. [Yahoo, which owned Flickr, was a poster child of big technology company dysfunction. Om.]
The majority of photographers I knew joined Instagram a few years later. When Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012, it was easy to assume that it would start to shift away from its early photographer community roots. Even though we knew it was coming, it still hurt when it happened.
I started some early designs for what eventually became Glass in 2013, but we didn’t start this project in earnest until late 2019. My co-founder, Stefan Borsje, and I met while working together at Framer. After leaving Framer, he and I kept talking and eventually decided to build Glass together.
Om: What is the long-term vision for the app? How do you plan to sustain it? Advertising, subscriptions, or selling data?
TW: Glass costs $4.99/month or $49.99/year to be a member of Glass. For launch, a yearly membership is $29.99. We believe there’s a sustainable business to be built by focusing on photographers and building a community and products specifically for them.
We intentionally didn’t raise venture capital. We didn’t want to make the compromises that I saw earlier in my career. With no outside capital and subscriptions, we’re able to forgo advertising, engagement algorithms, pivots to video, and several other things we feel would compromise the product and community we’re trying to build.
Om: Who are you focused on as a primary customer — a professional photographer? A pro-am photographer? Or amateurs?
TW: It’s for photographers — amateur or professional. That can be anything from someone just starting with their iPhone or someone with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. We believe great photography can come from anywhere and anyone. We hope to build a community for all levels of photographers to learn, grow, and generally nerd out about photography.
Om: So far, who has paid for the app buildout?
TW: We’re bootstrapped and proud of it. We’ve self-funded Glass to get to this point. Our members and their subscriptions will be funding us moving forward. This is just the beginning for Glass — we have a lot more planned for the app and community.
Om: So what would be deemed “success” for Glass as an independent company.
TW: Just because we’re an independent company doesn’t mean we don’t have massive aspirations for what Glass can be. We’re just going about it differently than the traditional venture route. If successful, we’ll be working on Glass for years to come. Glass’s success is our community’s success. If we have a thriving community of photographers growing and learning together, we’ll be thrilled.
Om: There has been an explosion of apps trying to fill the need for sharing photos and have strong photo communities. Why?
TW: Photography is alluring for apps because of the ubiquity of digital photography these days and the ability to grow a network fast. With the shifts Instagram is making to its core product, of course, other apps will rush in and try to fill that void. Glass isn’t going to replace Instagram. And that’s okay!
Om: I have been a beta tester. Kudos: it is beautiful. It looks fresh, yet it retains so many of the elements of the early IG, such as comments and followers. What makes it different in your mind?
TW: Instagram wasn’t the first social network to have these features, and we won’t be the last.
But how we are going about implementing features. For example, currently, we don’t have likes. If and when we launch a feature in that vein, it’ll be private. We’ve intentionally avoided any public counts. We don’t want Glass ever to become a popularity contest. We’re not home for influencers. We are a home for photographers.
So, we have focused on comments in Glass, and there’s a big reason for that. We want to spur discussion about the photograph. For example, we highlight EXIF data in our app. That leads to conversations about lenses, for example. We’ve seen some amazing threads happen in our early testing by making comments the primary way to interact with a photo.
Om: For me, the biggest problem with IG was the networked model that put primary focus on likes, followers, which ultimately was topped off by algorithmic toxicity. You might have seen that report about more skin getting more engagement. It is in sharp contrast to the early days when everything was more communal, and conversations were about photos and the stories around images.
TW: These are the tradeoffs that I mentioned earlier and one of the reasons we’re so excited to see what Glass can become. Glass doesn’t have ads or algorithms because we don’t have investors or advertisers. We only answer to our community, which means all the decisions we make are in the best interest of our community and our business. We think it’ll be such a powerful shift in how these apps are made that we’re betting our company on it.
Om: What does a better community experience mean for Glass?
TW: We’ve lost a lot of the good internet over the last two decades. Centralization and the loss of certain apps and communities have hit us all hard in unexpected ways. Cynicism has become the norm everywhere. The earnest internet is, hopefully, going to make A come back. And we want Glass and the community we’re building to help lead the way.
Anyone who has grown a community knows you can’t control the communal experience. But you can guide it. Our unofficial motto is “be excellent to each other.”
We want you to feel safe on Glass. We have multiple features to make sure that’s the case. So, we’re launching with blocking and reporting. We have a Code of Conduct that every member of Glass has to follow. We have straightforward and easy-to-understand terms of service.
These things are complex; they cost us substantial money and time. We’re launching months later than we would be without those safety features. But then we’d be launching something we didn’t believe in. Couple all of that with it being a private, subscriber-only community, and we think it’s a recipe for a great community experience.
Om: On a more pragmatic front, is there an option for folks to remove their photos if they leave the platform? These days, our photos inform computer vision algorithms, some of which are used for nefarious.
TW: You can download a complete archive of your photos and delete your account. When you delete your Glass account, we delete your photos and account.
Om: Good. I was pretty critical of the Unsplash sale to Getty. It was clear that the path isn’t going to be in the best interest of the community. And I don’t know what will happen to my photos that are on their servers?
TW: The point of building Glass without investors, charging for our product, and building this transparently with our community is not to sell the company. We’d rather work for a paycheck than try to win the lottery. But if we were ever to sell Glass, it’d be to a partner who aligned with our values as a company.
A great example of this is Day One. Paul Mayne started Day One nearly a decade ago and grew it to one of the best apps in the App Store with over 15 million downloads. Day One has been fielding possible acquisitions and outside investment since they launched. They charged a premium for their product. They were able to pass on all of the options that would’ve compromised their product or their users.
He kept it indie and bootstrapped for a decade until the team recently joined Automattic. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic (the company that offers WordPress as a service), has a proven track record of allowing companies to continue operating in the best interests of their communities and users. Both companies were made better, and their values were aligned.
Om: Instagram’s best part was its infrastructure and how fast it made you feel the photos loaded. Can you talk about your infrastructure and how you are hoping to create a fast experience?
TW: With all the advancements of technology in the last decade, it’s never been easier to deliver an incredible user experience. Stefan helped build the backend that supports Framer, and before that, he worked at Amazon Web Services (AWS.) He brought that expertise to our infrastructure. Glass uses minimal compression and has color profile support to ensure that your photos look like you intended.
Stefan Borsje: With Glass being a side-project, I’ve mostly focused on keeping infrastructure simple. We leverage a lot of AWS’s managed services, but most notably Fargate (for running Docker containers without having to manage servers) and Aurora Postgresql (the RDBMS we use, again, without having to manage servers). It allows us to strike the right balance between keeping our infrastructure small (and cheap!) while we get ready to let more users in and scaling out as we grow our userbase.
TW: To be on the safe side, we’re launching as an invite-only app to start. We’ll be rolling out invites to the waiting list all the time, and each new Glass member will have a batch of invites to send out to other photographers.