Even if you’re not a tech-junky, you’ve probably heard the news that Facebook has bought the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion. It’s causing a lot of noise, even making the headlines with mainstream papers such as The Guardian. Many are comparing it to Google’s acquisition of YouTube for a similarily mind-blowing figure back in 2006, and in many ways the comparisson fits: at the time of the sale, both were lacking in any obvious plan for generating revenue, both are built on (predominantly) user-generated content, and both tap into major tech-trends (video for YouTube, photos for Instagram). And, importantly, Instagram, like YouTube, is to be kept as a separate brand.
Acres of newsprint, and its digital equivalent, will be used trying to deicpher why Facebook would pay $1 billion for something that was built by a couple of guys for a fraction of that price, notwithstanding the investment it had raised. But leaving that aside, other than the fact that building an app that allows users to easily take & share photos with vintage style filters shouldn’t have been beyond Facebook’s capabilities, what is Facebook likely to bring to the Instagram product?
The answer, it seems to me, is pretty simple and ironic considering Instagram’s core function: filtering. At present, your Instagram feed is made up of the latest photos from the people you follow, posted in reverse-chronological order. When you only follow a couple of people, and assuming that they’re not budding David Baileys, capturing everything they do on ‘film’, this isn’t a problem. But, as your network grows, this can start to become troublesome.
It’s a problem that Facebook has faced, and Twitter still has. For these platforms to succeed they need to grow, and for their users’ networks to grow with them, but as they do, what was once useful or enjoyable, can get lost in a vortex of noise. Facebook has overcome this problem, to a certain extent, by algorithmically curating users’ newsfeeds with what it calls EdgeRank. This essentially decides what you are most likely to find interesting, based on past interactions, and puts it front and centre, and relegates everything else to your Ticker.
If Facebook only does one thing to Instagram, and that’s to build EdgeRank into its feed, it will have massively improved the service and made it much more usable as the service continues to grow, particularly if it does so in conjunction with the addition of tagging. Undoubtedly it will do more than this, and many will (reflexively) complain, just because it’s Facebook doing it, but doing so will make Instagram better, and also make it more likely that the app will one day live up to that incredible price-tag.