The Addictive Allure of Instagram

Cool photography apps for the iPhone are a dime a dozen, so what is it about Instagram that has made it capture hearts and minds of over a 100,000 users in just a week? Between Camera+, Hipstamatic and several others, how is it that founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom finagled their way to seemingly instant popularity? Have they, unlike the others, figured out an effective recipe for success?

I believe the answer to that last question is yes, although Instagram’s initial runaway success is no guarantee for long-term profitability. How and where Mike and Kevin take it from here will decide Instagram’s future, but rather than pontificating over that, I’d like to look at why Instagram is such a hit so far.

Piano keys

1. Efficiency

The first one entirely comes down to flow: which activities do you have—or would you like to have—in your life where a photography app could make a difference? The most popular thing in photography today is people sharing their photos with friends and family online, therefore, the greatest difference a photography app could make is making sharing a quick and easy process.

Whilst other ways exist, there are only three primary means of sharing photos online:

  1. Taking a photo with a camera-phone and emailing or MMS’ing it to someone;
  2. Taking a photo with a digital camera, offloading it to a computer and then uploading it online or emailing it to people;
  3. Using an app like Flickr’s on a smartphone to upload photos directly from your camera to your Flickr, Tumblr, whatever.

There have been apps, APIs and solutions to upload photos to social networks and photo sites before, but all those have had one thing in common: with the exception of the also-very-new Camera+, none of them allowed you to share across multiple different sites all at once. The rise of smartphones has made photography apps incredibly popular, but so have other social networks which support sharing photos. Whilst not at all always the case, oftentimes the question is not which social network to share a photo on, but whether or not you’ll go through the effort of sharing it on several or even all of them.

One of the things Instagram does very well is making the process of sharing a cool photo you just took to multiple sites really easy. After you’ve authenticated to them once initially, it is but a single tap (for each) to share your photo to Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, with Foursquare requiring you to also specify the location (an obvious requirement for a geolocation service). The fact that you have to specify per photo which sites you’re sharing it to makes it easy to, for the more conscious of mind, avoid spamming the same site or social network repeatedly with every single photo you upload.

Gazebo, hilltop and autumn afternoons

2. Charm

If all Instagram did was upload photos I took or chose from my camera roll to the aforementioned social networks at once, I would’ve been very happy with it. But it’s far from all it does. One of the less surgical aspects is the charm with which your photos get uploaded. Whilst not enforced, you are definitely encouraged to apply one of the built-in filters to your photos in Instagram. For those familiar with apps like Camera+ or, especially, Hipstamatic, these polaroid-esque effects will be nothing new under the sun. That said, Mike and Kevin have done a great job at picking just a small number of filters that mimic very specific effects, and they’ve made the process of choosing them about as simple as it could be.

This last aspect is important, because every moment wherein you’re consciously waiting for the app to do something is a cost. By itself it is a small cost, but multiplied by the number of photos you take and upload with the app, that cost becomes quite significant.

As an example, just look at Hipstamatic. Hipstamatic simulates the experience of using old Polaroid and film cameras, but simulates it _too well_. It is a gorgeous looking app, but simulating a tiny viewfinder, the swapping of lenses and the processing of a taken photo are all things we happily left behind when technology improved. The swapping of lenses is an acceptable cost with real-world lenses, where the glass in each lens actually matters. When simulating a lens programmatically, the process of “swapping” it should be focused on a streamlined user experience, not on old, fidgety experiences from the 1960’s.

In contrast, with Instagram you take a photo—or choose one from your library—and apply a filter quickly and easily with a single tap. Not what you want? Another single tap shows you a different filter. Camera+ offers similar functionality, but offers so much more that it sacrifices simplicity in return.

The charm that gets added by these filters is valuable, but not so valuable that it should cost us an arm and a leg in time investment, nor so valuable that we happily suffer a painful experience just for it. With Instagram, the only waiting takes place when applying filter after filter, and it’s rarely a noticeable wait at all. In return, you get all the charm you could want from little polaroid-like photos.


3. Community

For some, Instagram is hard to define. Is it an app or a social network for photos? I’d say, it is both and it is neither. Instagram is something all of its own, but the fact that it comes with its own built-in community—which is growing quite rapidly—does give credence to the social network moniker. At the same time, it only exists as an iPhone app right now, and as an app it allows you to take photos and share them to various (other) social networks.

But Instagram is, maybe more than anything else right now, a community of people who enjoy making & taking charming photos, sharing them with their friends and seeing what their friends have shared[1]. It is a community that lives on top of other, existing communities, and has pulled this off seemingly without any pain or friction. The Instagram community is composed of people from Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Flickr, which of course has helped it tremendously in gaining widespread adoption so quickly. But whilst a single photo may be easily posted across those four social networks, it is only within the Instagram app itself that one can comment on or “Like” the photo. With the application being a free download, the barrier to entry is almost nil.

As mentioned, Instagram runs its own community that sits atop of all the ones it shares to, but in this case it’s hardly lonely at the top. The Popular “page” in the application shows an overview of thumbnails which are interesting or popular at the moment. At a surface level it seems very much like Flickr’s Explore page, but the crucial difference is that with Instagram, one doesn’t need to be a stellar photographer (or be at the right place at the right time) to get a photo on the Popular page. There is a lot more room for amazing photos in Instagram’s Popular because, unlike Flickr’s Explore, it supports a much greater number of photos to be “popular” all at once, and the rotation cycle is more dynamic.

Whilst comparing it to Flickr, there is another thing I want to point out. It used to be Flickr where all my friends and I went to share our photos and look at each other’s photos in a stream. I’ve long stopped doing the latter, but still regularly upload my (DSLR) photos there. This because Flickr remains to this day a fantastic platform for storing, sharing and organizing your photos on—especially if you have additional ideas for things to do with your photos. However, the keyword in that sentence is “platform”; more than anything else, for me personally Flickr has lost its sense of being a community site. If you use it to its fullest extent and you take great photos, you end up being very widely known and get flooded with comments and feedback from people you don’t know. The “friends and family” aspect inevitably suffers as a result.

This is fine if you’re a serious photographer, but whilst I greatly enjoy my own photography, I treat it as a hobby I share amongst my friends and family. Flickr’s approach to everything has become very serious and professional, emphasizing power and possibilities. Its API is fantastic if you want to do your own thing with photos hosted on Flickr; if you’re just looking for a place to share your photos with friends, Flickr now feels too clinical, devoid of enabling an emotional connection between your photos.

Instagram, on the other hand, has instantly brought me back to the place wherein I enjoy sharing my photos and looking at my friends’ photos regularly. I’m followed by far more strangers on Instagram than I am on Flickr already, but everything about it feels intimate and personal.

Mike and Kevin have made something that combines all the best things about sharing photos in today’s perpetually online culture, bundled them into a free application, and put enormous amounts of fun into the process of using it. Through its mix of efficiency, charm and community, Instagram quickly creates an emotional connection amongst its users, while at the same time offering a great amount of functionality. This has all the signs of a product that can become a really, really big hit, and I sure hope to see that happen. Now excuse me whilst I “Instagram” this photo I took at the start of writing this piece. It’s a meta thing, I’m sure you understand.

Wind turbines

  1. This is also what mostly sets Instagram apart from Camera+.

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