Understanding Instagram and why Flickr might just have a chance

You might think photo-sharing is just a harmless activity enjoyed by many mobile-phone users, but over the past few weeks it has become the latest battleground where internet giants try to topple each other and/or build fortresses around their networks. The recent contretemps between Instagram and Twitter — in which the Facebook-owned service cut off support for Twitter’s “expanded tweets” feature — was just the prelude to all-out war, with Twitter launching its own Instagram-style filters. Now Yahoo has suddenly appeared on the field with its brand-new Flickr app, which not only offers filters but finally brings Flickr into the photo-sharing present after years of irrelevance. If the overall battle is about platform ownership, then pictures seem to be everyone’s current weapon of choice.

The focus on photo-sharing in this Game of Thrones-style struggle makes a lot of sense, for a number of reasons: as Om and others have pointed out, the rise of ubiquitous mobile broadband and the mass adoption of powerful handheld computers with built-in megapixel cameras has changed the landscape of photography more than almost anything that has happened since the practice was invented. Die-hard professional photographers and designers may lament this phenomenon, but for many people the smartphone camera is now more than adequate for most purposes. And what’s the first thing you want to do when you take a photo? Share it.

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Photo-sharing is viral behavior everyone wants to own

The viral nature of that act, along with the strong personal connections formed around photos, is one of the main reasons why Facebook was willing to spend a billion dollars acquiring Instagram, a company with just over a dozen employees (although it wound up getting it for the bargain price of $750 million). For Facebook, the sharing of photos by users is a crucial part of the social glue that binds people to the service — and Twitter’s decision to cut off Instagram and implement its own photo service shows that it sees the value of that as well, and the need to integrate it in a way that enhances the Twitter platform at the expense of its competitors.

But while Twitter’s photo features may look and feel a lot like Instagram’s — with a series of automated filters that you can apply to your shots, including black-and-white, sepia-tone and others that imitate 1970s-era photography — I agree with Verge writer Ellis Hamburger that the company is missing the point by focusing on these kinds of features in an attempt to duplicate the success of Instagram. It’s like someone trying to copy Facebook by just implementing a “poke” feature (TechCrunch writer and venture investor MG Siegler makes a similar point here).


For me at least, the success of Instagram and the central place it has staked out in my mobile-device habits have virtually nothing to do with the filters, most of which I agree are cheesy and make most photos look dramatically worse. As I’ve explained before, the biggest single attraction for me when I first discovered the service was the ability to share photos to a broad range of other networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr. That and the social network that I quickly built up within Instagram — one that involves people I am not connected with on any other service — are what have kept me loyal to it. And together they make a fairly high barrier to entry for others.

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But sharing is better when it isn’t limited to one network

Twitter’s photo features are great, and the editing tools and filters are a nice addition, but the first thing I noticed is that the photo-sharing is limited to Twitter — and you can’t even use other tools like If This Than That to automate a cross-posting from Twitter, since the service recently cut off that ability because it contravened Twitter’s new API restrictions, which are also designed to build walls around its platform. Those kinds of moves may suit Twitter’s needs, but they don’t suit my needs as a user, and so the likelihood that I will use Twitter’s photo-sharing service instead of Instagram’s is dramatically reduced.

On that front, the Flickr app that the Yahoo-owned company just launched looks substantially more appealing — and possibly even like a worthy competitor for Instagram. Not only does it finally bring the service into the 21st century in terms of features (which, like Twitter’s, are licensed from Aviary) but it is fast and attractive to use as well, as my colleague Ryan Kim describes in his post on the launch. And even more important, like Instagram it allows users to share their photos to multiple networks, including Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

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When you combine that with a user base that remains relatively large (I have almost 20,000 photos on it and have been a Pro subscriber since 2006), Flickr starts to look like a real player in the photo wars. Twitter may be thinking of photos and filters as something that can help it build walls around its platform — which raises the question of how long it will allow Flickr users to access its follower graph, since it recently blocked both Tumblr and Instagram from doing so — but it could ultimately wind up missing the boat.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Cotidad and See-ming Lee