Content was never king. Contact was always king.Douglas Rushkoff (h/t @aweissman)
This line from Rushkoff has been my mantra the past few months. It’s a simple but sublime observation about the Internet, and it came to mind again today while reading about Instagram.
In case you missed it: some people are hopping mad about Instagram because it “debases photography.”
Where these critics go wrong is they think that Instagram is about photography and photo-sharing.
I’ve been on Instagram for a while, from when it launched, but it wasn’t until I saw how my 13-year-old daughter and her friends use it that I truly understood it. For them, it’s a replacement for Facebook. They share photos, but those are just points of entry, a way to a conversation. They are status updates, expressed visually.
They tart up their photos and comments using an array of 3rd party apps like Versagram, PicFrame, Emoji. It’s a ping to let your friends know you exist, and what your doing; and you hope for a “like” (a ping back) to let you know you’re not alone on the network.
Of course, this is what we’ve all been doing with Instagram. We’ve just been under the illusion we were sharing photos. Seeing the behavior of these 13-year-olds made that clear to me.
We’re not using Instagram to make art. Or to hone our craft as photographers. It ain’t Flickr.
We’re just trying to connect with our friends, to start a conversation. Instagram is really a communications platform disguised as a photo app.
This is true for almost all successful social media services. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — they work because they help us to communicate. What we think of as acts of self-expression are really just opening lines.
Which brings me to video, and to “social video apps.” The real way to gauge these apps, to judge them, is to ask whether they help you craft a great opening line; a way to start a conversation.
The photos you uploaded to Facebook from your birthday, the picture of the sunset with a high contrast filter you made with Instagram, that song you soundtracked, the precious cat-cuddling-with-warthog video from YouTube you tweeted — they all might be great opening lines.
But sharing that blurry, grainy, shaky video you took with your phone where you can’t really make out what’s happening? Well, the jury is out on that. And so we have the founder of Socialcam admitting (after the sale of his app to Autodesk) “that the comparison to Instagram was a fallacy from the beginning.” The two apps launched today (Ptch and Vyclone) are exciting because it’s possible to imagine a way to craft a video using your phone that might be compelling.
But here’s the other thing — it helps if it’s easy and fast to craft that opening line. Instagram works because we can take and make a fun cool photo in a few seconds. Same with sharing a link to an article, or a song, or a video. Making a video takes so much more time and effort.
To beat this metaphor into submission, it’s hard to craft an opening line with a video you’ve taken. It’s much easier to do with a video you’ve found and loved. Most of us are good at judging if a video is funny, interesting, beautiful, worth sharing. Few of us are good at making a video worth sharing.
Why did YouTube succeed on the web? Because they gave us a place where we could always find something great that we could share; and they allowed us to take those videos and talk about them wherever we liked; our blogs, our Myspace pages, and more recently on Facebook and Twitter.
In this new world, where we spend more of our time on mobile and tablet devices and where apps reign supreme, we need something different. My hunch is that the social video apps that succeed will be the ones that give us those great opening lines; that make it easy for us to find videos that are cool, amusing, incredible with just a few taps or swipes.
But Instagram shows us, if nothing else, those apps will need to do one more thing; provide us a place to talk with our friends about the videos we find.
Instagram could have been a photo app, and outsourced the conversation to our existing social networks. They won in the photo space because they figured out that we all really wanted to connect and talk, and they gave us a fun and new way to do that.