For many fans of Instagram, the news that Facebook is acquiring the photo-sharing mobile platform is a little like hearing that your best friend is engaged to that jerk. She might be thrilled. But you can’t help but feel a sense of doom about the whole arrangement.
The sense of foreboding is because Facebook announced today that it is acquiring a much-beloved network with gallons upon gallons of that sweet nectar called user engagement. Where Facebook engenders distrust, Instagram inspires affection. Where Facebook feels invasive to many, Instagram creates profound connection.
This afternoon, my social streams were stuffed full of Instagram fans who now worry that Facebook will monkey with the magic somehow, hobbling it or killing it completely. “Not sure I’m excited about our new Facebook overlords,” one person said. Others tagged their announcement of the acquisition thusly: #endofdays #instagramsellout and #keepingthesame. This fear has some precedent: Facebook offed social-location app Gowalla after purchasing it in December.
When the Instagram news broke earlier today, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took pains to point out that Facebook is “committed to building and growing Instagram independently.” In other words, Facebook plans to keep the service intact, and it won’t screw with features that make Instagram what it is: for example, the ability to post photos to other services—Foursquare, Twitter, and Flickr (and not just Facebook).
Still, some of the 30 million people who use Instagram tweeted their shock and disappointment, and some vowed to delete their Instagram accounts. Around 60% of those who responded to a Mashable poll today expressed disappointment at the pairing (“I think Facebook will find a way to screw Instagram up.“) You can see the latest poll results here.
Elsewhere (also tellingly), Mashable suggested how people could delete their Instagram account but still save their library of images.
I look at the acquisition through two lenses. The first: it makes total sense for Facebook. The second: it’s an apparent loss for Instagram fans.
Why it’s a great fit for Facebook
It’s not just that the Instagram network of 30 million is huge and has incredible momentum, growing at 2+ million users per month (last week, within 24 hours of the introduction of its brand-new Android app, it swelled by 1 million folks).
It’s also not just that it’s the largest mobile-social network—in other words, a social network in which the majority of activity takes place via mobile devices.
It’s that it’s the most successful mobile-first platform: a platform created initially as a mobile app, and not built first as website with a mobile app added later (like, well, Facebook).
If you’ve ever accessed Facebook on your smartphone, you know that mobile isn’t Facebook’s strong suit. Clearly, Facebook will benefit from acquiring the sharp mobile development chops of the Instagram team.
Why Instagram fans are upset
That growth momentum of Instagram speaks to its unique strength versus that of most any other large social network, and it’s that unique strength that fuels its rich relationship with the people who love it—and accounts for the wailing at the news that Facebook has acquired it.
What strength am I talking about? At its core, Instagram allows you to tell stories visually, with a simplicity and immediacy that mobile users expect. And it does so with elegance and artfulness. That’s what makes its “stories” so appealing, and (for me) why it breaks new ground in a world where great content is at the heart of online relationships and brands.
In other words: It’s not just a network of shared photographs, but a platform built on the shared experiences of visual stories. The images on Instagram are at once intimate and broadly appealing, at once personal and universal. The platform allows you to create visual stories with an artfulness and elegance and a special kind of significance that inspires true connection between the people and brands active there.
To its fans, Instagram is a social network that many value enough to potentially pay to access. Yet it was purchased by a network many would never pay to access. And that, I suppose, is the nature of irony.
As the saying goes: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer—you’re the product.