Instagram: Some Late Thoughts on the Billion

I remember, back in May, enjoying organic salmon, edamame, and green tea at Samovar in SF, looking out over SOMA and getting a pleasant, slow sunburn. Two guys were sitting next to me who looked like they worked in tech, probably at CBS Interactive down the street, who was hosting the HTML5 event that brought me out to the West Coast. I heard one of them say, ‘sepia filters dude, sepia filters,’ throwing his hands above his head, adding ‘a billion dollars!’ It was only slightly less cliche of a scene than I experienced at Peet’s in Mountain View the following day, where entrepreneurs looked busy, or looked busy looking busy, at every one of the tables. My coworker and I had to sit outside, which was fine because I continued to work on my tan.

I, too, was surprised by the long list of zeros offered to Instagram by Facebook. The dude in SOMA was right–Instagram is basically just a bunch of sepia filters. Fairly basic functionality and labyrinth-like navigation. And the website doesn’t allow users to view/manage their photos. It seems like a pretty straightforward Django implemention. So why were they offered the GDP of Guinea-Bissau?

My answer takes me way back to the summer of ’11. I was at hip rooftop party in NYC (you can tell by the way I describe these that I don’t go to many of them), and my hairstylist was there, and she asked me to take a picture of her against the midtown skyline. Despite the camera being a cheap Nokia phone, the photo came out kind of cool in a Terry Richardson way. She told me that I needed to ‘Instagram that shit,’ half joking. I didn’t know what she meant at first, but I soon downloaded the app, and I Instagramed that shit.

Throughout the summer I got pretty into Instagram. The filters weren’t anything amazing–I already had ‘an app for that’ with Camerabag. What I liked though was the fact that I could establish my account under a slight pseudonym ‘d_woot’ and a kind of mysterious and admittedly too artsy profile pic. I also liked that I immediately got connected to a random group of LA kids–my hairstylist’s friends and their friends–people I feel that may have not followed me on Twitter, but did so on Instagram because I’m a photographer and I tend to post interesting images. Twitter makes you put ‘yourself’ out there: I’m so and so and I work at this company and I have these interests. The Instagram ecosphere didn’t require that. And therein lies the interesting point.

Instagram provided a way for me to see creative stuff by random people, and interact with them. It allowed me to do what made the Internet interesting in the first place–be anyone I wanted to be, be mysterious. Thus it also didn’t require me to blast images to my whole family and social network–cousins, girlfriend’s parents, former bosses, etc. Yes I realize there are circles and lists, but I find them cumbersome and annoying. And perhaps most importantly, Instagram didn’t shove photos of babies and girls nights out and glitter down my throat. I felt liberated; I felt that there was a future for social networking in more targeted communities, viable options to the meta-narrative sites.

And then it was bought by Facebook.

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