Consumer Web companies are funny things. As Bryan Goldberg argued in an earlier post, the best ones solve a specific problem that bedevils the founder, they don’t aim to please the masses. But that doesn’t mean that users wind up adopting sites for the reasons founders assume or even wish they would.
In October, we brought you an interview with Instagram founder Kevin Systrom who gave a very different vision of what Instagram would become in the future than what we know it as today. He wanted it to be a new source of news, bringing in a bold new era of citizen journalism. When I asked how that would differ from Twitter, he said that even at a limited 140 characters, Twitter focuses heavily on text. Instagram will tell the world’s stories in a rich, visual way.
If that’s the goal, Systrom certainly married up with the right partner. For years, Facebook has played a crucial role in global political events in the Middle East, Colombia, and even our own elections.
We saw a glimmer of hope for Systrom’s vision during super-storm Sandy. And indeed, at the time, the event set an Instagram record for photos shared. There was even a site to capture them all. Unfortunately, every time I’ve scrolled through Instacane, I’ve seen more pictures of people inside mugging for photos as the storm was rolling through than a rich picture of Sandy’s devastation on America. Citizen National Geographic it was not. Sandy wasn’t Instagram’s “Arab Spring” — it was merely another channel for documenting the storm, eclipsed by Twitter.
And Sandy is no longer Instagram’s biggest photo event: As we reported earlier, Thanksgiving was. That’s either a sign that Instagram — juiced up on Facebook steroids — is just growing so fast, anything that happens will be its biggest moment. (Although tellingly, the election was not.) Or it could be a sign that people simply don’t use Instagram the way Systrom might want them to.
Put another way: Not only did #Instacane turn into largely a meme, a joke-driven indoor story of the storm, but Instagram’s biggest event to date was the one time when family, friends, and pictures of food take center stage, while most world events fade into the background.
This backs up something that I’ve been seeing in my personal social media feeds for a while now. It’s hard to know how universal it is, because everyone’s social feeds are inherently unique. But in my world, Instagram isn’t the next journalism tool like Twitter. It’s not the next massive pan-humanity social network. It’s the Path that Path wishes it was.
In founder Dave Morin’s own words, Path doesn’t seek to be the town squares of the Internet — a la Twitter and Facebook — it seeks to be the intimate dinner table conversation. I’ve always loved this intention. When I was pregnant with my first child, I assumed I’d be a heavy Path user as a new parent. I didn’t want to flood my other social media channels with baby photos, but I knew my family and a few key friends would want to see them.
But in practice, Path isn’t a smaller, closer network of my friends and family. Not a single family member is on it — save my husband — and the friends on it are mostly industry friends. It’s mostly just a smaller circle of the same people that I’m already connected to, and the only reason it’s smaller is because those are the people who happen to add me and be active on Path. There’s nothing more qualified about it. My closest connections are all on other social networks, not Path.
So when I go to share a highly personal moment — say sharing ultrasound photos of baby No. 2 — there’s not much of an incentive to put it on Path. I still pretty much use clumsy email to share it with those close to me. Anything that I want to share with a slightly wider circle still doesn’t have much value to share on Path. Because the people I am friends with on Path, are the same kinds of people I’m friends with on other networks. If I have something to say to them, I’m usually fine saying it to more people at the same time.
So why do I ever use Path? I like the UI and the filters. And I like them on Instagram too. It’s literally a toss up whenever I snap a photo of which one I put it on, and Instagram usually wins because more of my loved ones are actually on Instagram. I actually find some of the best pictures of my own son on Instagram, because it’s the one that my nanny uses. It’s my husband’s stream of choice as well.
I love the design of Path, the intention, everything the company says it wants to be. And I think Morin is a good entrepreneur. But because my close inner circle isn’t on it, it simply doesn’t work as advertised for me. I’m sure Morin would disagree, but I think his timing was off. He was too late to be Instagram and is too early to be the mobile-first social network that all my loved ones are actually on.
Simply put: In lieu of a relevant Path, for me, Instagram is the Path I have now. And if Instagram’s biggest day is — literally — the day of the year spent around the family dinner table, it shows I’m not alone.
For what it’s worth, Instagram is not only closer to Path than what Systrom wishes it was. It’s closer to what the Twitter founders originally described Twitter to be.
Back in 2007, co-founder Evan Williams described Twitter to me as the AP news feed of your life. He didn’t mean a news feed in the sense that users would curate their own front pages as they do now. He meant an actual AP Newsfeed of your personal life. Your dentist appointments, your honeymoon, what you had for lunch. “When I talk to someone every six months, I get a news report of their life,” he said at the time. “I get the headlines, and that’s not where intimacy is created.” Intimacy, he said, is created in the little throw-away moments. Like what you did while you waited out a super-storm, or whether you had a fried turkey for Thanksgiving dinner this year.
Fellow co-founder Biz Stone similarly described his first Twitter “a-ha moment” as the time when he was doing dirty, menial work around the house, and he saw via Twitter that Williams was at a wine tasting in Napa. The very personal juxtaposition of their days made him laugh.
And Twitter’s third co-founder Jack Dorsey talked about an even more poignant example, where he Tweeted about his brother giving him a thumbs up. Most of the world saw that as an everyday boring detail of life. But those close to Dorsey knew his brother was recovering from brain trauma, and this was a crucial sign the family was waiting for to know if his recovery was on track. He loved that people close to him had the context to take something greater from it. (All three of these conversations were in 2007; I imagine they’d all have different “a-ha moments” today.)
So let’s get this straight:
Twitter has become what Digg wanted to be.
Instagram has become a mix of what Path wanted to be and what the original Twitter founders thought Twitter was.
Twitter is still what Instagram wants to be.
Path is something well designed and pretty but needs a better reason to exist for users like me.
And Digg is… well… poor old Digg.