Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lessons from the New Instagram

The decisiveness of the mass reaction to the changes at Instagram has puzzled more than a few people. How can anyone get excited by a terms-of-service change? some ask. For others, the question is, Doesn’t the company have a right to make money somehow? The discussion has revealed deep splits between people in assumptions about the way Instagram works, and these differing points of view may also hold lessons for the Internet and business in more general terms.

First, it is clear that some people see Instagram as an activity, almost like an evening at a bar. Viewed this way, the photos people post are mere artifacts, like the napkins at the bar. In this view, if there is any work or creativity embodied in the online photos, it is there by accident. Others, though, see Instagram primarily as content. That is, for them, the photos come first, and the fact that there is a social structure of people looking at them is secondary. In this view, some photos are much more important and valuable than others. Creative people, such as photographers, musicians, and authors, seem to fall almost entirely in the second group. Amid their protests there is an element of shock that the company hosting their creative work sees it as being devoid of both creativity and work.

The second major split in perspective probably falls along the same lines. There are some who see Instagram as a freebie, a free service Instagram provides to its users, who pay nothing in return. In this view, there has to be a way that the users can provide some value to the company. Others see Instagram as an exchange, with some people providing the platform that makes it all work while others provide the entertainment value that makes it all interesting. In this view, Instagram would be nothing if it were an empty window with no photos to show, or even if it merely showed a random assortment of photos. It depends utterly, then, on the contributors who provide the relatively few highly interesting photos that give users a favorable impression of the site, and it ought to have a strategy for retaining and encouraging the users who contribute these photos.

It is hardly new or shocking that media people have little respect for content. Radio stations, after all, have never cared what records they play. If all their records disappeared, they would get different ones next week, and no one (they imagine) would notice the difference. It is the same with television networks and programs, cinemas and movies, bookstores and books. If people thought Instagram was different, they might stop to consider that it was originally created by computer programmers rather than photographers. It has always been about the medium, not the message.

It is the people who are trying to persuade the old Instagram’s users not to be shocked by the new Instagram who are the most clueless. It is a human instinct to avoid being exploited, almost the same as the instinct that tells us to get out of the way of a falling tree. People who see themselves as the targets of thoughtless exploitation run first and ask questions later. Telling people in this state to calm down and allow themselves to be exploited, which is the way this advice comes across, goes way beyond missing the point. It may be logical advice within a certain narrow point of view, but it fails to show compassion or common sense.

If there is a business lesson in all this, it is a lesson in branding. If a business makes a change that is shocking to its core constituency, that means it had brand assets it didn’t realize it had. Unfortunately, this information comes only after the value of the brand has already been liquidated. By then it is too late to be of any use.