Instagram this week announced that it now has over 700 million users, a dramatic increase in usage since last year. Count me in: My own usage of this service has likewise increased.
As you may know, Instagram is owned by Facebook. And that’s interesting when you think about it: Instagram ostensibly competes with the core Facebook offering, as it is, at heart, a social network based on content sharing. Of course, Instagram is all about photos, whereas Facebook appears to have devolved into a service for fake news, your politically crazy friends and relatives, and people who mistake this service for a diary.
I’ll get back to that in a moment, but for me, the big news here is that Facebook is on pace to have four services with over one billion users each by the end of 2017. That’s an astonishing achievement, and in my opinion, one that is richly deserved, given how much Instagram, in particular, has improved in recent years.
For the record, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp all have over one billion users, and Instagram, with over 700 million users, is closing in. In this “mobile first, cloud first” era, “one billion users” is the new “billion-dollar business,” which is how we measure success with more traditional firms, like Microsoft.
Facebook’s path to this success is interesting.
Messenger, for example, started as a feature of the core service, and when Facebook pulled it out of its mobile app and created a standalone Facebook Messenger app, users were outraged. Until they just got over it and continued using the standalone app.
The other two services, Instagram and WhatsApp, are acquisitions. Facebook acquired Instagram in April 2012 for about $1 billion, a paltry sum compared to the over $19 billion it spent on WhatsApp in February 2014.
Looked at another way, both Facebook and Instagram are essentially social networks. And both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are instant messaging solutions. Facebook has one in-house offering in each category, and one acquisition in each. It’s almost like it’s hedging its bets.
But I’m most interested in the sudden rise in Instagram usage, since this rise—and the acceleration in this rise—has in fact mirrored my own usage of the service.
I joined Instagram in October 2011, I think—I can’t actually figure out when this happened for some reason—but then I did what I (and many others) often do with this kind of service: Made a few quick test posts and then went back to whatever I was doing elsewhere.
The issue for me was that Instagram, a service created specifically for photo sharing, was always a terrible place to share and enjoy photos. Instagram started as an iOS app, and its two most notable features were its tiny, square-cropped photos and the terrible, overly-saturated filters that I felt destroyed, not enhanced, what you were trying to share. Instagram, to me, was a joke. It was the selfie-stick or SnapChat animal ears filter of its day.
But things change. And in keeping with my philosophy of continually testing the competition as well as my time-crusted traditions, I kept going back to Instagram—and other photos services, of course, like Google Picasaweb, at the time, and Flickr—and seeing whether it was still a non-starter.
And for years it was. But last year, something clicked. Instagram had long ago given up on forcing square-cropped photos on its users, deemphasized the filters, and improved the quality and size of the photos you see in the service.
As important, it started to fill a need that is tied to my own specific—perhaps peculiar—use of social networks.
I regularly use three social networks today. I use Facebook exclusively to keep up with family, friends, and other people I actually know. I don’t post any work-related nonsense there for the most part: It’s just personal stuff. On the work side, I use Twitter to interact with readers and listeners, and I mostly don’t publish personal photos there. (Though I’m me, so to speak, so this stuff sometimes filters through.)
Others handle these services differently, and I’m perhaps just old enough that I actually find it irritating sometimes. For example, I know many people who post work-related things on Facebook, an act I find troubling as I would never promote myself to family or friends. Others post personal photos of their family and small children on publicly-accessible networks like Twitter, which I would never do either, if only for basic privacy reasons.
But I take a lot of photos, and I enjoy looking at photos. And Instagram now fills an interesting role for me as a place I can post a selection of personal photos, and enjoy others’ photos. And now, since my kids have grown up, I can go back through the archives and post some of those pictures I have of them when they were young. Because they aren’t anymore.
In fact, after experimenting with Instagram last summer during our home swap in Paris, I decided to use Google Photos’ amazing search capabilities to look up the photos from the past each day and post them to Instagram, retroactively, creating over the course of a year a pretty complete look back at my life, and the lives of my family. I do this every day, and it will end in July-ish, and then I’ll just post to Instagram normally as time moves on.
But this behavior has seen some interesting reactions, and I’m reminded of the weirdness you see sometimes on Twitter and other networks, where one is admonished for not conforming to an unwritten standard that others have created in their own heads. (See my note about irritation above, yes, I’m a hypocrite.) For example, sometimes I’ll tweet something on Twitter, remember an related thought, and then just respond to my own tweet. Which inevitably leads to a bunch of rocket scientists asking me why I’m “talking to myself.” Because, you know, Twitter has to work exactly like in-person communications.
On Instagram, specifically, I’ve received some negative feedback about me posting older photos, as if posting any photo to a photo-sharing service could possibly be outside the bounds of what is acceptable. One friend jokingly congratulated me on my new career as an Instagram photographer, for example. Whatever: Once the year comes around, I’ll be done.
More important, this experience has shown me that what I really care about in all this sharing—in both directions—is the photos. And as Facebook has devolved, I find myself caring much more about what’s happening on Instagram as a result. This is further strange because I know far fewer of the people I follow on Instagram than I do on Facebook. In fact, Instagram is a real hybrid service for me, in that I follow things that are important to me, as I do on Twitter, and not just people I happen to know. It’s been more rewarding, for sure.
I’m not going to knee-jerk it and just leave Facebook. But I find myself infuriated by the service because of all the bullshit that people post there. And these are people I know and care about, which makes it all the harder. Yes, lots of what I see are things I do really care about, and Facebook is a great way to keep up with friends and relatives that I don’t see in person very often. But too many people share news stories (I don’t read Facebook for news real or imagined, and sorry, Bob, or whoever, I don’t come to you for breaking news about the latest celebrity death or airline customer service fiasco). Too many post meme photos. Kitten and bunny videos because they don’t like the way the world is going and need a little burst of happiness. Endless complaints and rants about nothing and particular. And my all-time favorite: The navel-gazing diary entries. Which are too often about unexceptional food.
So I spend more time on Instagram these days, and I will continue to slow and re-evaluate my Facebook usage as a result. It looks like I’m not alone.