April 10, 2012

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.

A photo posted Tuesday by Instagram user savastarr.

Instagram users for the most part did not welcome their new corporate overlords.

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.”

Journalists have wrestled with how and whether to use these photographs, with one photojournalist claiming news organizations “are cheating us all” by publishing Instagram photos.

“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.”

So filters might be OK to enhance a casual image of flowers blooming outside Rockefeller Center, but not for a photo of Richard Engel reporting from North Korea. It’s a judgment call in every case.

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.

NBC News’ (unfiltered) Instagram photo of tornado damage last week in Lancaster, Texas.

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).

Breaking News encourages Instagrammers to use the #breakingnews hashtag to submit newsworthy images. NBC San Diego curates local photos from the #SanDiegoGram hashtag.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker posted this photo of Mitt Romney campaigning in Puerto Rico to Instagram.

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.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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