Instagram’s Boomerang takes on Vine & Apple’s Live Photos with 1-second videos

Instagram has released a new standalone application called Boomerang. It allows users to share 1-second video clips with their friends, effectively taking the “don’t-call-them-GIFs” animations from Vine and chopping them into sixths.
Boomerang “takes a burst of photos and stitches them together into a high-quality mini video that plays forward and backward,” according to the blog post announcing the app, automatically saving the result to a user’s camera roll. The brief animations can also (of course) be shared to Instagram’s main app.
Boomerang users won’t have to sign in to Instagram to use the app, according a TechCrunch report. It’s supposed to be a lightweight tool that does one thing — capture a short video — and one thing only. Instagram users who see a video made with Boomerang in their feeds, however, will be shown a link to download the app.
This is the third standalone application Instagram has introduced since it was acquired by Facebook. The first was Hyperlapse, a video recording app that makes it easy to shoot time lapses and other edited videos; the second was Layout, which allows people to share photo collages to Instagram proper.
All of these apps could have been included as features in Instagram’s primary app. But, as I explained when Layout was announced, breaking them into pieces makes it easier for Facebook to lay claim to more of a person’s home screen:

Facebook knows that a smartphone home screen has limited space, and if it manages to make at least some of [its copycat services like Slingshot or Rooms] stick, it can take control of mobile devices without having to make its own platform. Until then, all it has to do is rip various aspects of its service out from its ‘big blue app.’
That’s where Instagram comes in. The service was so simple when it was acquired that many additional features can be introduced as standalone apps and explained away by claiming it doesn’t want to make things complicated. It gets to take over people’s smartphones, those people get access to new apps, and Facebook gets to control even more of the home screen. Everyone wins.

Sure, Boomerang mimics something the new iPhones can already do with Apple’s Live Photos. (That might be part of Boomerang’s appeal, actually; no need to buy a new phone just to make fancier animated GIFs.) Sure, the videos are shorter than Vine’s and make it seem a bit like Instagram’s playing catch-up.
But that won’t matter if people have fun with Boomerang. Instagram has enough users who want to find new ways to express themselves that it can probably get thousands of Boomerang downloads in just a few short hours. Then Instagram is happy, Facebook is happy, and consumers are happy. That’s how companies take over a home screen — one quirky little app at a time.

How I became my cat’s social media manager, and found a community in the process

I last made an internet friend in middle school, when so few people used AIM that my real-life friends and I traded contact lists and began chatting strangers. One time a boy asked for my number and called my house. I panicked a few seconds in and hung up. We never spoke again.

But I have always been fascinated by online communities, especially connections that begin behind anonymous handles and then morph into real world friendships. From time to time, group pictures from meetups float to the front page of Reddit — person after person who felt strongly enough about their online world to bring it into reality.

I had never felt that intense of a connection with the people I encountered online.

That general stranger-danger opinion of online contacts feels like it has started to lift in recent years with the proliferation of online dating sites. My friends talk openly about meeting people on Tinder and OK Cupid. Moving from the virtual to the real world is becoming more structured, more accepted. But I had yet to find a nook or cranny where I found myself at home.

It turned out that my nook was filled with cats. Lots and lots of cats.

Enter a cat

Eight months ago I adopted a cat — a fluffy orange tom I named Hobbes after a dear childhood favorite.

Hobbes. I still think he's cute.

Hobbes. I still think he’s cute.

A prolific photographer, I quickly had more photos of my precious fur-baby than I was willing to reveal to my Facebook friends. I started an Instagram account dedicated to Hobbes and shared it with the friends who would understand what I thought was my special brand of crazy cat lady. They tolerated me internet gushing over my cat, and even rewarded it with showers of likes.

At the time, I knew of a few Instagram-famous cats and dogs. There was @nala_cat, who has more followers on the platform than world-famous Lil Bub and Grumpy Cat combined. I also loved @marutaro the shiba inu and @hello_oskar, a handsome tuxedo who explores the California coast on a leash. I chuckled to myself as I followed them. Cats following cats.

But then something odd happened: Unfamiliar cats started following Hobbes’ account. I followed back, and followed more. Within a day, Hobbes had more followers than my personal Instagram account. And nearly all of them were cats.

Down the rabbit hole

In these early days, running the account was a small investment that brought immediate return. I could post a picture of Hobbes sitting on the bed and ask, “Which movie should we watch today?” and within minutes have dozens of likes and comments. Hobbes alternated between sassy quips directed at his “humans” and quotes from “Calvin and Hobbes.” For a while I paired photos with lines from Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, but it turns out no one wants to hear depressing musings on life from a cat.

Over time, I noticed the same people (or cats) commenting on my pictures over and over again. I started commenting back. I knew their cats’ names and “voice,” and started looking forward to seeing what certain accounts posted each day. My Instagram stream turned into a medley of cats satirizing current events, celebrating #caturday and making cutesy jokes. It felt a lot like Twitter, except everyone was a cat.

As the months wore on, my focus shifted from entertaining my friends to pleasing Instagram’s universe of cats. My content became more sophisticated. Some friends and I collaborated on a 10-panel noir piece and this weekend I am running “House of Cards” quotes on top of cat videos. I whittled the number of pictures I posted a day down to two, a number I gleaned from looking at the most successful cat accounts.

As I got deeper into cat Instagram, I joined its rituals. I entered photo contests to get Hobbes featured on accounts with more followers. Messages of “adopt, don’t shop” and “ban declawing” washed over me. I mailed cats handmade bow ties, and they sent me Christmas cards. I found myself using emoji — lots and lots of emoji.

Today, Hobbes’ Instagram account hovers at around 4,500 followers. Every picture I post gets 300 to 400 likes and, depending on the caption, a dozen or so comments. Among the thousands of cat accounts on the site, it’s a modest number. But it’s enough to give me that constant drip of reward social media sites are geared to provide. I post something, and people listen and respond.

Accidental cat people

About a month ago, I did grow tired of upkeeping Hobbes’ account. Writing captions, even if they are dumb cat jokes, takes a surprising amount of energy. I handed the reins over to my boyfriend for about a week and went back to curating my personal Instagram. It was nice for a day or so, and then I missed cat Instagram. I found myself explaining running jokes to my boyfriend and feeling personally responsible for ensuring Hobbes responded. I missed my friends.

The accidental-cat social media manager story is a common one. No one is singularly a cat person, the way a gamer can be a gamer or an athlete an athlete. In the real world, everyone has other identities. Charlene Dahilig, the Sacramento, California-based human behind the beloved @omgdeedee Instagram, said her account was originally private for more than a year.

“I was mostly posting pics of Gary, even at that time,” Dahilig said. “My sister told me that he could be a star and that I should go public, so I did. I wasn’t sure if it was just me who thought he was so unique, though.”

Gary, a white cat with a beard-like black splotch on his chin and mustard-yellow eyes, is not what you would call a classically beautiful feline. Dahilig’s captions present him as a cantankerous and vain, but also lovable, house panther who bosses his “intern” Margo the cat around. It is one of the best known accounts on cat Instagram.

Ruth White, a Hollywood, California, human who has adopted three squish-face Persians from shelters over the last 10 years, said her boyfriend convinced her to start her Instagram account, @squish_n_duffy.

“I didn’t even want to do Instagram. I thought it was so dumb,” White said. “And here I am, 23,000 followers later, organizing Instagreets.”

Friends, in good times and bad

White and a group of Instagram friends get together every few months to talk life and their pets. Many bring their cats.

“I think people think cat people are supposedly introverted and the cats stay at home. There’s this idea that you can’t get a bunch of cats together or mayhem will ensue,” White said. “When you get with a group of people and you all have one thing in common, even if you’re shy or reserved, with your love of cats you can’t help but just engage.”

White recently lost Squish, her first cat. When she adopted Squish 10 years ago, the then-1-year-old cat was so sick White was afraid to name her. Her temporary name of “the squish-faced cat” became permanent.

After Squish died, my Instagram feed filled up with tributes to the tortoiseshell Persian. Everyone had messages of condolences and support.

“To have this community around me that cared so much about me, and checked in on me, and sent me notes, flowers, and just did the most thoughtful things. …” White trailed off. “I was overwhelmed by their kindness. In some ways I’m a stranger, except for that we’re almost always in each other’s daily lives.”

Dahilig said the community support is her favorite part of Instagram. If a cat needs an expensive medical procedure, other people often step in and crowdfund it.

“The response to cats in need and the response when someone loses a pet is truly overwhelming,” Dahilig said. “People know what you’re going through, and I think it helps people through their grieving.”

Hobbes and a donut.

Hobbes and a donut.

If you had asked me a year ago to comment on cat pictures 20 times a day, I would have laughed. But I get it now. Behind every cat, there is a person you follow for their humor, their photography skills, their whatever, the same way you would anywhere else on the web. It’s just that here, in my corner of the internet, everyone happens to like cats.

I haven’t yet made the leap to meeting an Instagram friend in real life. But I wouldn’t mind doing it. This time, I won’t hang up.

Facebook owns the four most-downloaded mobile apps in 2014

Mobile analytics firm App Annie released a report on app trends on Wednesday that sorts out what kind of software people downloaded on their phones and tablets in 2014. The answer: Facebook-owned apps, including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, were the four most-downloaded apps worldwide when combining iOS and Android downloads in 2014, according to the report.

Because App Annie doesn’t put games and apps in the same category, the global list doesn’t include titles like Candy Crush Saga or Subway Surfers, which might account for more total downloads than Facebook’s utilities. But Facebook’s performance is still impressive, and an indication that the company’s multiple-app strategy might be a success. On the other hand, most of Facebook’s homegrown apps — such as Paper, Groups and Rooms — do not show up on any other top charts provided by App Annie. Facebook purchased both Instagram and WhatsApp.

Top Global App Downloads 2014

The top app worldwide in terms of revenue in 2014 was Line, a Japanese-based messaging service popular in parts of Asia. Its sibling gaming app, Line Play, clocked in at number three in terms of worldwide iOS and Google Play revenue. (Pandora was second.) On the gaming side, Clash of Clans generated the most revenue, although fellow freemium sensation Candy Crush Saga was the most downloaded.

In a reminder of why both [company]Google[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company] want to break into China, neither company placed a single app in the top ten iOS apps either in terms of revenue or downloads, because neither company widely offers its services in China. The Chinese app leaderboards are filled with apps from Chinese web companies like Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu.

Reflecting the fact that China is quickly becoming the the biggest market for iOS devices, App Annie found that China generated the third most revenue for iOS among countries in 2014, taking the third-place spot from the United Kingdom.  Japan ended up being the country that generated the most revenue for Android developers during the period. Games remained the most downloaded category of apps across countries.

The single most downloaded app in the United States in 2014 was Facebook Messenger, thanks to Facebook requiring its users to download a separate app to use the service. Pandora Radio was the most downloaded music app in the United States, landing at the fourth most downloaded app excluding games, and number one in terms of getting people to pay.

United States downloads 2014

App Annie reported that there were more Google Play app downloads than iOS app downloads, but iOS apps still brought in significantly more revenue. Google Play accounted for 60 percent more downloads than iOS, but iOS apps generated 70 percent more revenue.

The entire App Annie report is worth a look and you can find it here.

Six ways in which Andrew Keen is wrong about the internet

In his new book “The Internet Is Not The Answer,” author Andrew Keen continues a theme he introduced in previous books, about how the internet is a net negative for the economy and for society. But I think he is far too negative

Vine rings in its second year by hitting 1.5 billion daily loops

Video app Vine celebrated its second anniversary Saturday, prompting product head Jason Toff to share new metrics. The company is now seeing 1.5 billion loops, or plays, a day of its six second videos. That compares to the “more than one billion” daily it announced in October.

1.5 billion a day is a huge number. Multiply it by 365 days of the year and Vine is seeing more than half a trillion loops yearly.

But it comes with a caveat. Vine videos are set to repeat themselves automatically, so 1.5 billion loops doesn’t represent the amount of individual, unique views by new people. If someone leaves their feed unattended, the views can multiply quickly.

The most recent user number Vine released was 40 million registered users, in August 2013. The company notably left out monthly active users and as far as I can tell it hasn’t released new user metrics since. I’ve reached out to the company to confirm and will update if I hear back. It’s possible that user growth itself has stagnated on the application even as its video plays have grown. Lots of people consume Vines other places than the app, watching them on Facebook, Twitter, or even YouTube.

In terms of viewing, the new stats show Vine has grown from its earlier self as it matured as a video application. It’s a mainstay of entertainment for teenagers, giving them a second screen experience.

Although the company hasn’t introduced advertising, brands pay the top Vine celebrities, the stars with the most followers, to do product placement in their videos or even outright mini commercials. The six second limitation to the video has spurred new, creative forms of expression from stop motion art to its own genre of slapstick comedy.

As I’ve written about, the earliest Vine stars are graduating from the application, starting to land Hollywood TV show parts and record deals, parlaying their teen social media stardom to a broader, more mainstream audience. Vine’s owner Twitter hasn’t entirely managed to keep up. It’s ignored some of its biggest celebrities, perhaps to keep the app focused on average users instead of just highlighting the famous faces. But its better-funded competitors, like Facebook and Instagram, have started wooing the key content creators in Twitter’s absence.

In typical Twitter fashion, the Vine product has managed to grow in spite of its parent company’s potential pitfalls. As it rounds its two year mark, the application and its stars show no sign of slowing.

Instagram could be one of the best deals of the last decade

If a Citigroup analyst is right about the amount of revenue that Instagram will be able to generate from advertising over the next couple of years, Facebook’s acquisition of the company for just $1 billion will look like the best deal of the decade

Andy Carvin launches social-media reporting team for First Look

Former NPR staffer and Twitter-based journalist Andy Carvin is launching a team of half a dozen social-media “anchor/producers” who will be embedded in various social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit and use them as sources of journalism

Being connected is more of a good thing than it is a bad thing

There are plenty of things that are bad about being connected to the internet and the social web all the time, but there are far more good things about it, including the relationships that it allows us to create with people we’ve never met