The semantics of selfies: How the launch of Instagram’s Windows Phone app was marred by unclear communication
Instagram today announced that it has finally brought its popular photo-sharing service to Windows Phone, the oft-neglected operating system that previously offered access to the service only through apps made by independent developers. The announcement was heralded as “a good indicator of health for Windows Phone,” but then reports stated that the app doesn’t allow users to take photos. It could only import them from the existing camera roll, the reports said — an odd restriction for an application whose main purpose is taking, editing, and sharing images.
After much hand-wringing and widespread questioning of Instagram’s sanity, it was revealed that users actually can use the app as a camera, in a way; the only problem is that it shuffles them to the native camera app, allows them to take a picture, and then immediately brings them back to the Instagram app.
The company hasn’t released a photo app incapable of taking or editing photos, it had simply released an app that doesn’t feature a custom camera like the one found on Android or iOS. Though this is hardly ideal, it’s not nearly as what-the-fuck crazy as previous reports made it seem.
There are plenty of things to learn from this incident: Don’t release a long-awaited app without making sure it does the same thing as its counterparts on other platforms; don’t trust reports published before their authors have had the chance to use the app or clarify key details with the company; don’t forget that this is a photo-sharing app we’re talking about, not an important piece of software that could actually affect your life in any way. But those are general guidelines that have been shown by many other apps.
Perhaps the most important thing to learn from the app’s release is that semantics matter, especially with software. Instagram’s public relations team isn’t technically wrong in saying that the release doesn’t feature an in-app camera, but it’s also depending on readers’ ability to download the app and try it for themselves instead of denouncing it sight-unseen. (A quick glance at the comments section of any moderately popular publication should make the problem with this assumption readily apparent.) If the company had said that this release — which is technically billed as a beta — doesn’t feature a custom camera but will still allow users to take and edit photos, much of this hullabaloo could have been avoided.
That isn’t to say that the app is perfect, or that it should actually be regarded as a good indicator of Windows Phone’s ability to attract the attention of services already popular on other platforms. It’s not perfect or as feature-complete as other versions of the app, and one app is hardly enough to make up for the comparatively barren app ecosystem Windows Phone users must suffer. But it’s not nearly the disaster it would’ve been if it truly didn’t allow users to (relatively) easily take photos.
Put another way: There’s no reason to worry about Windows Phone users’ ability to share sepia-toned pictures of their overpriced cappuccinos or dramatic shots of airplane wing tips or their own scrunched-up faces. This version of Instagram is just as good at all of those things as the versions available on Android and iOS, excepting the absence of the custom camera.