If You Can’t Beat ‘Em
Why I decided to rejoin Instagram years after deleting my account.
I was there to ride the wave of Instagram’s original success. This was a period of massive adoption that convinced Facebook that the Instagram product was worth a cool billion dollars. Shortly after riding that wave, I left the beach, which was, by that point, chock full of tourists.
People were bullish on Instagram and it had a reputation as the next big thing in social media. There were limitations with the product, though, and the initial signs after the Facebook acquisition pointed to the introduction of some new problems. It seemed to me that the limitations were not going to be addressed and novel problems were going to keep popping up. Specifically, I objected to:
- Facebook removing support for Twitter cards, which was clearly a stab at their primary competitor. The move degraded the user experience by forcing Twitter users to jump to the Instagram site to view the photos instead of being able to view them inline or in the Twitter app itself. At that time, despite Instagram’s success and growing popularity, IG posts did not survive on their own. They had a symbiotic relationship with other social media platforms, which were used to spread them. This is still the case, though one could convincingly argue that a post on Instagram can now much more easily achieve self-sufficiency.
- Facebook’s initial attempt to utilize its user’s posts for advertising. This caused a huge backlash, and the company immediately backed down. However, it was clear that Facebook was at the ready to do something drastic to begin to monetize the service for which they paid such a pretty penny.
- The binary privacy options. Other photo sites, such as the more feature-rich Flickr, gives users the option to share photos to different audiences, on an individual post basis. Instagram, however, will only let you either have a public account or a private account. You can’t, for instance, send out photos from a concert and tag the artist publicly, and then share pictures of your kids that you want only your followers to see. For someone who once caught a rando at the State Fair taking unsolicited pictures of my young son, but who also wants expanded reach on some of my photos, the dichotomous choice of privacy at the account level is not sufficient.
- The slow rate of product development. Instagram was one of the last major apps to update its skeuomorphic look to the new flat look of Apple’s iOS 7. It stuck out like a sore thumb on home screens for a long time. Further still, Instagram has never created an iPad app, even with the family of devices consistent popularity. This could be a conscious decision that makes for opinionated software, but it’s still a limitation of the product for the millions of iPad users.
When Facebook made the Instagram acquisition, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of the move. Given the transparent and simple nature of the service, I felt like someone with enough talent and venture capital could raise a copycat or even better network from among the stones of Silicon Valley.
In short, I was wrong.
Admittedly, the playing field is different now than when Instagram was first acquired. Snapchat has become a dominant player, and it’s obvious that Instagram feels threatened by them when they blatantly copy features like stories, introduced last year or face filters, introduced only a few weeks ago. However, Instagram has only become more popular and gained more users in the years since Facebook bought it. People tend to get very personal on Instagram, posting very intimate and even vulnerable pictures. The service is used for much more than just personal photos, videos and stories, though.
There are many people who run businesses off of Instagram. Some of them rely on their follower count and the reach of their personal brand to make them effective advertisers for companies, getting paid for content that speaks to followers of movements with names like #vanlife. Some are more direct businesses, like The Gap. The apparel retailer posts photos of people being hip in Gap brand clothing, and then allows you to go to a link that features a grid of the same photos with links in order to buy the merchandise featured in the photos.
Instagram isn’t exactly tailor-made to be a vehicle to promote goods and services, which makes the fact that it functions as such all the more impressive.
There is no way to add hyperlinks allowed in Instagram posts or comments, hence the commonly used phrase “link in bio.” Getting users to your merchandise, therefore, is an uphill battle. Nevertheless, people find success in doing it, finding the reach they get from the platform worth the effort.
After witnessing the staying power of Instagram, over the last few years, I decided it was time to give the service another chance. I still routinely see people I follow on Twitter share more photos there through Instagram than by using the native Twitter functionality. That mere fact kept the photo sharing service on my radar constantly. Instagram still has limitations, like not allowing posting through the API, from other applications. It has drawbacks, like constantly alerting you to follow more people. Now more than ever, the service seems to be trying to find itself (the stories feature feels like it was hastily tacked on).
Nevertheless, I am back. Here are some of the things that led me to rejoin:
- The ability to use embeds. This is at the top of the heap because it allows bloggers to share photos with built-in-attribution. There are no concerns over giving creators proper credit and properly linking back to the source. Most publishing platforms, such as Wordpress (using the Jetpack extension) and Medium (through Embedly) easily translate Instagram posts into embedded content, many times without even using the embed script that Instagram generates.
- IFTT integration. Through the use of IFTT, my Instagram photos are automatically pushed to my Day One journal, which can then become a printed artifact. It’s a digital process, with all of the sharing and archiving benefits inherent in the medium, but allows a tangible analog output. It feels like a round trip where you step on the train from the real wold by taking a photo, ride the digital line that stops by all of the places your friends live, and then get back off at your own comfortable home (something like this IKEA ad featuring an 18th century version of photo sharing).
- The ability to like something publicly and/or save it for later privately. This is something that is lacking on other services, like Twitter. I used to star a tweet when I wanted to come back to the linked content. As the heart replaced the star, I now like a tweet to let the author know of my appreciation for it. Unfortunately, if I want to check out a link to some music or an article, I can’t like it to remind myself to back to it, because that would imply premature endorsement of the content. Instead, I need use a third party save-for-later service, the difficulty of which depends on where I’m using Twitter (iOS, the web, etc.). With Instagram, I can save a post without explicitly notifying the person who posted it. I can even organize those saved posts into collections. Or, as has traditionally been the case, I can let the creator know I like the post with a heart.
- It is not a place for politics. While Twitter seems to be an avenue that lends itself well to political rants and sarcasm (I’m just as guilty as anyone else), and I hear people complaining about having to block their friends on Facebook because of their politics, the content on Instagram seems to mostly float above the fray. I believe it’s due to the personal nature of sharing revolving mostly around photographs that forces you to tell a story about your life. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local, but there are aspects of life that are even more local, and people tend to capture those aspects on Instagram.
- Friends. Everybody is on this product. You can see people you know and those you don’t express what they are doing through art. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Enough said. See you on Instagram.