Twitter-Instagram photo war reveals new business realities of social networks

The photo-sharing turf war is escalating, with Twitter copying Instagram-like features and Instagram (owned by Facebook) no longer making its photos viewable within tweets.

No matter which company wins, users will lose.

It seems time to just accept that Facebook and Twitter's forget-about-money-and-put-users-first startup phase is over. Both companies are pivoting hard toward monetization and market-share protection as their primary goals.

Promoted tweets and sponsored stories are filling up timelines and news feeds. Facebook Page owners are relentlessly pestered to fork over cash for better visibility of their posts. And third-party developers are increasingly being disempowered.

The networks have shifted focus from creating value to capturing value. And to capture value, they each feel the need to lock users into their own platforms and reduce integration, thus limiting competition.

A quick history of the photo-sharing wars

In 2011, Twitter launched its own photo hosting and sharing service, rather than rely on third parties like Yfrog or Twitpic.

After trying and failing to dominate the market with its own Facebook Camera mobile app, Facebook was willing to pay $1 billion -- over $28 per user at the time --  to acquire Instagram this year.

In July, Twitter stopped letting Instagram users sync their Twitter friends list with the service.

Twitter now plans, perhaps by the end of the year, to launch photo filters that would mimic Instagram's popular feature. And Instagram just decided to stop letting Twitter show its photos embedded inside tweets. Tweets can still link to an Instagram picture, but the user will have to open the link in a Web browser to view it.

Writing at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram surmises that Twitter is motivated by "ambitions as a media entity," which means it "is trying hard to monetize or at least to exert some control over content that is being created by other companies, whether it’s Instagram or The New York Times."

Implications for journalism

Ingram concludes with questions for news organizations and other media:

I think moves like Instagram has made should get more media companies thinking hard about the relationship they have with Twitter. It is not just a conduit for your content to reach your users whenever and wherever you wish (if it ever was) — it is a proprietary network built by a company with monetization and expansion on its mind, and your content is part of that equation. What are you getting out of it and why? And will that change in the future as Twitter’s mission and vision evolve? And what will you do if it does?

That's probably correct. However, it is also unavoidable. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are dominant players in social media, and you have to play with them if you want to be in the game.

This bargain reminds me of a scene from "The Godfather," in which Don Corleone declines to join Virgil Sollozzo in his heroin business:

I want to congratulate you on your new business and I'm sure you'll do very well and good luck to you. Especially since your interests don't conflict with mine."

Social networks are great partners for news and media, and even for other social networks, as long as your interests don't conflict with theirs.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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