Why Instagram is a sign of the future (and that’s a bad thing.)

Like a lot of people, I've been thinking about Instagram a lot lately. If you haven't read Part 1 and Part 2 of my short introspective on Instagram, it will help provide context for the awesomeness that awaits below. I'll wait here.

Ok.

Now that you're back, you might remember that I said,

There are times in our lives where we must reflect on the situations before us. Sometimes those situations are simple. Sometimes they appear to be complex, but are truly simple. Other situations are truly complex, requiring much effort to overcome.

For most people, at the level of the individual user, "to use or not to use" Instagram is an easy choice to make. People will continue to use Instagram as long as,

  • It continues to be easy to use
  • It doesn't piss off too many people, and 
  • It provides a "good enough" product to a majority audience.

And it looks like most have chosen to stay with Instagram, as news points to Instagram not seeing a large drop in users because of any fallout from their Terms of Service situation.

So, where's the complex situation, you ask?

Good question.

The complexness comes from the long history of social media and its current confluence with the idea of profitability. Only in the last decade or so has there been a focus on a monetary reward for owning, creating, and growing a social network. Taking the long view of social media to include BBS, IRC, AIM, etc, the overall goal of those means of communication was to provide an electronic hangout for people on the Internet; the goal was not to make money.

The latest generation of social networks, starting with MySpace in 2003, looked to first build large communities. Once the sites gained enough popularity and (more importantly) hype, a focus on advertising and monetizing those communities came to the fore, as seen by the purchase of MySpace by News Corporation. 

Think back to 2006: That’s when they signed the $900 million, three-year advertising deal to turn Google into Myspace’s exclusive providers of text ads and search. It was a great cash prize for Murdoch’s purchase, but actually ended up being a weight around its neck. The deal’s targets required Myspace to crank up page views and increase already-heavy advertising space at precisely the same moment that Facebook was pushing forward with a clean and easily-understood design.

This cycle of community building followed by a push for monetization continued with Facebook much along the same path as MySpace. Facebook, like MySpace before, initially kept advertising off the site, only starting to include ads in 2007 some three years after the inception of Facebook. 

As Facebook grew larger from 100 million users in 2008 to over 900 million at the time of its IPO in May 2012, the push for monetization went through several spurts and fits. The more mobile-friendly audience of 2012 necessitated a push towards new mobile advertising and monetization, hence the purchase of Instagram, a pure mobile company with a large and growing audience.

MySpace = Facebook = Instagram?

I believe that Instagram will follow the path of the larger social networks, such as MySpace, Facebook, and even Twitter, to focus more on catering to the needs of shareholder profit and increasing revenue, all at the expense of user experience. (Now, what I certainly don't mean here is that the function and everyday use of those above social networks will be the same. What I mean is that their focus on advertising, monetization, and shareholder appeasement is and will be very similar.)

I hate (insert social network here) now, what can I do?

It's important to realize that as we've seen this cycle before, we will see it again. While certain alternatives to Instagram, such as Flickr, certainly have had their ups and downs as well, I believe it's important to keep the larger picture in mind when dealing with your individual and professional intellectual property. Do social networks like Instagram truly care for the individual? Only time will tell if Instagram cares more about increasing its value for Facebook's shareholders.

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