Contrary to popular opinion, Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram need not spell death for the novel photography-sharing social network. Rather, the deal highlights Facebook’s endeavors toward fostering an environment conducive to all-important increased end-user engagement.
Boasting a shockingly poor pedigree of mobile applications, Facebook has, thus far, utterly failed to infiltrate the burgeoning market of mobile photography. With increasingly competent cameras, mobile phone owners worldwide are beginning to unlock a chest of vast potential within their own devices. High-quality photography has, simply put, stoked confidence in mobile phones as viable replacements for traditional point-and-shoot cameras and, in doing so, has opened the door for a new paradigm of novel interactivity between people.
Facebook, at the end of the day, is in the business of exploiting the novelty of such newfound means for interconnectivity. Originally incepted as a vessel for ogling classmates and chipping away at perceived social barriers in real life, Facebook aided in the redefinition of typical sociability. Rather than exchanging a phone number, many began to add each other on Facebook — photographs, interests, and friendly interactions betraying a person’s leanings far better than even the most adept mind might elicit from a brief conversation.
And yet, since its founding, Facebook has remained largely unchanged. Mr. Zuckerberg and his organization have merely sought to uncover and promote new ways in which personal information might be shared. Whether it’s location-based socializing, ubiquitous messaging, status updates, or the recent Timeline initiative, the core principles of Facebook, albeit bloated, have remained relatively unscathed. Built as a device to shatter social walls between Internet users, Facebook has grown into a behemoth in the field, deftly swatting away inevitable privacy violations, breaches in security, and even the most compelling of competitors.
For all of the innovation poured into Facebook’s core web service, however, is a missed opportunity in the mobile space. With its acquisition of Instagram, Facebook has demonstrated contextual awareness and true reflexiveness for the first time in years. Aware of an impending and compelling threat from the mobile sphere, Facebook recognized its most prominent feature — photography — and its most prominent threat therein — Instagram — and acted. Accordingly, due to the mitigation of a threat and the evident awareness of the importance of photography to the service, many onlookers have embraced paranoia with regard to the integrity of Instagram.
Such rife paranoia amongst the technology community is of powerful importance to the Facebook/Instagram equation, insofar as — regardless of Facebook’s true intent — its mere presence conjures fear in the mind of the user. Facebook has a poisonous mobile brand and, as a result, has endangered its intentions in its acquisition of Instagram. Simply put, Facebook’s intentions must center around engagement. Increased engagement equates to increased revenue. But, in doing so, Facebook must not damage the trust and interest of the average Instagram user.
As Facebook’s astonishing growth continues to slow, the social network has been forced into an era of introspection. Lost is the goal of broadening the reach of the service in exchange for today’s guiding conceit. That is, Facebook must keep existing users entertained, engaged, and interested in order to remain afloat. Without such interaction, Facebook’s profitability and relevance are both associatively undermined.
Many have recognized this state of affairs and have thereby come to the assumption that Facebook must, therefore, incorporate advertising into Instagram, or that Facebook must deeply shoehorn Instagram into its existing infrastructure.
Boasting a poisonous mobile brand, a threatening presence as owner of the service, and a tenuous position as an advertising-driven entity, Facebook is not in a position to tamper with a beloved brand. Quite the contrary, I would imagine Facebook’s goal is to complement it. If Facebook can sustain the relevance of Instagram without culling competitive features (i.e., Twitter sharing), the social networking giant will suddenly have tens of millions of satisfied, active users adjoined to its existing services.
Facebook has grown beyond its bounds as a social facilitator. It is bloated, clunky, and broaches far too many privacy concerns. Instagram and its small-time brethren, on the other hand, are characterized by an overarching sense of versatility, responsiveness, and agility. As is betrayed by the Instagram purchase, Facebook is interested in extensive weight loss within its central infrastructure in order to remain competitive with such entities.
If Facebook can successfully incorporate the affable characteristics of smaller social networks such as Instagram and Path, refocus on mobile in a compelling manner, and introduce a fundamentally new, coordinated social paradigm, then I imagine Facebook will regain an enormous quantity of its alienated users. The most obvious initiating steps are as follows:
- Leave Instagram relatively unharmed. Perhaps integrate some loose branding, but do not quash the guiding integrity and pleasantry of the Instagram experience.
- Do not tamper with Instagram’s interoperability with competing social networks. As a Facebook entity, Instagram photography shared to competing services will only redirect traffic toward Facebook, not undermine the Facebook brand.
- Most importantly, whilst largely separate, position Facebook as an optional backend for Instagram. Currently largely unseen outside of the app, many users have been clamoring for a web-interface for years. Facebook — as photography powerhouse and social network — would be an ideal candidate for such storage and interaction.
- Do not make Step 3 compulsory. Allow Instagram users to exist alone and apart from Facebook.
What would such actions accomplish? Simple: Instagram’s long-lost, oft-requested web interface. Why? Tens of millions of active, engaged advertising impressions.
Suddenly, without harming the significance and integrity of Instagram as a standalone entity, Facebook is repositioned as the web interface for all compliant users. Inevitably, some users will refrain but, for the average user, I imagine a great deal would willfully engage. In doing so, Facebook will have constructed a corridor through which millions of users may fall into active engagement with Facebook and, associatively, its advertising-centric revenue model.
Investing in the expansion and relevance of Instagram as a satellite structure will facilitate a corridor through which users may pass into the central Facebook structure. Shared photos are no longer isolated to desolate instagr.am pages, they are kept in a centralized, interesting, timeline-laced repository within Facebook.
Such a concept is undoubtedly repulsive for the vast majority of ONE37 readers but, realistically, it is the only hope of the sustenance of Instagram as a relatively independent entity. Advertising is no longer necessitated, users are happily engaged, and some — if they so choose — are able to enjoy a compelling web-interface for their colorfully filtered photographs. In turn, Facebook gains active users, concordant profits, and takes a significant leap toward resurgent affability in the eyes of the end-user.
The central problem Facebook must contend with is its name. No matter how benevolent Mr. Zuckerberg’s intentions may be, few users will feel comfortable sitting beneath the all-seeing eye of the Facebook brand. Although ostensibly becoming an Instagram web interface does not mitigate this psychological hurdle, Facebook performing an act of surprisingly positive intent towards the end-user will certainly go along way.
In a period characterized by agile social networks usurping the bloated, all-encompassing relevance of Facebook, the best option is to adopt the basic tenet of humbleness. Arrogantly absorbing a popular application, replacing the name, diluting functionality, and replacing its heart with an iconic Facebook thumbs up, will simply serve to further alienate its loosely allegiant user base.
The average Internet user is fickle. Any conception otherwise is utterly misguided. Just as MySpace faded into insignificance in a matter of weeks, there is nothing to say the same fate cannot befall Facebook. Humbly recognizing strengths and weaknesses, respecting the user, re-strengthening a brand, and incorporating the help of another, Facebook may yet prove agile despite its size.