A thriving social network, an imaginative content-creation app and an innovative tech startup — any one of those ought to get a journalist’s attention these days, but especially when one company combines them all.
That company certainly made Facebook take notice. On its way to a $100-billion IPO, Facebook Inc. dropped a cool $1 billion Tuesday to acquire Instagram.
Many feared what would become of their photo app after seeing what Facebook did in the past year with Beluga, a group text-messaging service, and Gowalla, a location-based social network. Facebook acquired both, rolled their talent and technology into other Facebook products, and months later shuttered the original services.
Instagram, however, seems harder to eliminate, with more than 30 million loyal users and honors as Apple’s iPhone App of the Year in 2011. Mark Zuckerberg wrote Tuesday, “we’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently.”
It’s easy to see why millions of people are drawn to Instagram. Its camera tools and filters give amateurs a shortcut to elegant, expressive photography. More importantly, the social dynamics reward the user with appreciation and serendipity.
Those emotional connections make Instagram a “beautiful social platform of shared experiences,” and are the reason Facebook felt compelled to buy it at such a premium price, technology blogger Om Malik writes:
“Facebook was scared … and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.”
“We never want to change the context of any kind of image,” said Ryan Osborn, senior director of digital media at NBC News, one of the very first news organizations to join Instagram. “The most important thing is that the image stays true to the story being told.”
NBC started using Instagram for some behind-the-scenes photos from around the NBC News studios and offices, said Anthony Quintano, NBC’s senior community manager who also is a photographer and avid Instagramer. But users requested real news content as well.
Now NBC posts photos like Chuck Todd’s 40th birthday celebration, but also coordinates with its field reporting crews to contribute images of news like last week’s tornado damage in Texas. Quintano has blogged his three tips for news organizations using Instagram, and has fostered separate Instagram accounts for the “Today” show, “Meet The Press,” “Rock Center” and “Dateline.”
Many other news organizations followed NBC to Instagram.
NPR marked the 40th anniversary of “All Things Considered” by posting historic show photos. The Wall Street Journal covered Fashion Week using Instagram photos as well as Pinterest boards (they get extra style points for combining two trendy social networks).
The Washington Post uses it to visually narrate the presidential campaign with #2012unfiltered, for one-off reader engagement projects like spring’s arrival and community life and sometimes runs an Instagram photo in the paper.
Even the Fayetteville Flyer, a local news site in Arkansas, captures local scenes through Instagram.
So how should we think of Instagram’s place in the news system?
After Osama bin Laden’s death last year, The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham described how Instagram users “flooded the service with photos of Mr. Obama speaking, snapped from television and laptop screens — as if to say, ‘We are all a part of this.’ ”
What separates Instagram from other social networks is that people share photos not just of a thing but of an abstract idea — like “how I’m watching news of bin Laden’s death or “what spring’s arrival looks like to me.”
It seems Instagram will never be a place for sharing article links and breaking news headlines. And that’s fine. Twitter or Facebook may be where you get the news; but Instagram is where you feel the news.
Correction: This post originally misidentified NBC San Diego as NBC San Francisco.