When Facebook decided that it would spend a billion dollars (though in reality it turned out to be $715 million) to buy Instagram, a San Francisco-based photo-sharing network, it was a decision that was met with raised eyebrows, some tears and a lot of anger. There was this feeling that Facebook bought the one true challenger to its core value proposition — photos and photo sharing.
I was reminded of that feeling this morning when I ended up having coffee with Ravi Vora and Lauryn Meyers, twenty-something creatives from Los Angeles. These two travel around the country, combining their work and love of photography and sharing it with thousands via Instagram. I am one of those thousands who have been spell-bound by the ethereal beauty of their Instagrams.
Vora told me that he grew up in Michigan wanting to be a geneticist but when he scratched his creative itch, he ended up at a digital ad agency, doing creative things, including taking photos for Nike and making films. Meyers told me about her life as an army brat and her Los Angeles plans that involve wardrobe design. I had never met them till this morning, but I felt like I knew them already anyway — that I’d traveled with them over the holidays and had shared the antics of their cat. In fact, we talked as if we had known each other for a long time.
Square-shaped dream weavers
And this isn’t the first time I met someone on Instagram and then started spending time with them in the real world, already somewhat aware of snippets of their life. I have gone on photo walks with Instagram friends. I have attended “Instameets.” Vora decided that Instagram’s communal aspect was so strong that he ended up making a short film, the Instagram Generation, exploring this phenomenon. He wrote on his blog:
Through this tiny picture-sharing app, people have met up, become friends, started dating, flown across the world to meet each other, and gone on adventures they would have never imagined they’d add to their bucket list. Not to mention the inspiration they’ve found through following new people. From photography techniques, to jumps, to locations around the globe, there are no bounds to the creative ideas and unique ways that we share them. Well, besides that little square.
That video actually sums up Instagram perfectly. Instagram is one of those rare social phenomenons that marries the online and the offline and in the process, creates a unique community. It perhaps is one of those rare services that has not lost is charm over time. Twitter is a must in my line of work — it runs in the background much like news radio and CNBC. Facebook, on the other hand, has turned into a chore, mostly because of the expectations and information creep.
Instagram, however, is just pure, unadulterated delight. It still sits on the first screen of my iPhone, much like Twitter. It is a chance to get lost in the moments and beauty of someone else. Instagram, which recently sped past the 100 million monthly active users milestone, is reality television, where thousands of realities (and un-realities) are folding across the world. [Of course, the kids use it differently.]
While Facebook has bigger numbers, it also lacks the warmth and the loving feeling of a truly social experience. The last time we experienced such a powerful community, it was on Flickr, the online photo-service that is now owned by Yahoo and has suffered from apathy under various Yahoo regimes. In the New York Times, David Pogue reviewed Flickr and focused on the vast storage space that comes with the new and improved (questionable) service.”Flickr. Good writing, wrong focus” is how I would put it. Mike Monteiro, a rabble rouser extraordinare and a design guru, put it best when he tweeted:
David @Pogue’s take on the new @Flickr makes sense if you think of Flickr as a place photographers store photos, rather than a community.
— Mike Monteiro (@monteiro) June 2, 2013
Even though it is has new overlords, Instagram still has that loving feeling a year after it was acquired. It has nothing to do with the founders, though they are important to keeping the spirit alive. Flickr survived on the power of its community long after the founders left. Instagram, too, is going to keep growing, as long as Facebook doesn’t start meddling with the formula too much.
Any day now, we can expect the demands of Wall Street to persuade Facebook to start making money off Instagram. But for now, it seems those square photos have the power to be dreamweavers.
Also, another fine documentary on Instagram from director Paul Tellefsen. It is brilliant, to say the least.