Narcissism in motion: Instagram's new video features are a vanity mirror, not a communications tool
Sometimes it isn't enough to share a blurry, heavily-filtered photo of the flower pattern a barista poured into your Latte foam. A photo can't record the coffee house calamity happening all around you. It can't offer a full view of the cup's chipped handle, the polished wood of the table on which it rests, the way the flower changes as it disappears into your cuppa.
No, for that you need something more than a photo. You need video. You need "cinematic stabilization features." You need video filters. You need the latest update to Instagram, which has brought all of those features into the coffee-photo-sharing service of choice.
Instagram, to hear co-founder Kevin Systrom tell it, has wanted to incorporate video features since before it launched. The problem, he said during today's announcement, was that the technology simply wasn't ready for simple, beautiful, and communal video-sharing. So the service decided to focus on photos, grow to over however-many million users, and then sell to Facebook at a $1 billion valuation. Photos took precedence over videos. And then Vine, the Twitter-owned six-second video service, launched.
Vine is everything that Systrom said he would like to see in a video service. It's simple -- Vines automatically play as you scroll past them and are recorded with nothing more than a press of the finger. It's beautiful -- the service itself is well-designed, and you can create a decent-looking Vine without much effort. It's communal -- Vine has quickly grown to over 13 million users, made its way to one-tenth of iPhones, and surpassed Instagram on Twitter. And it's fun -- while Vine can be used as a news tool, it's primarily a vehicle for stop-motion antics, six-second comedy sets, and simple messages.
By trying to build something besides the long-awaited "Instagram for video" Vine managed to create, well, the Instagram for video.
The newly-updated Instagram, on the other hand, does not represent any of the principles Systrom cited on stage. Instagram remains one of the best-designed photo-sharing applications. But the new video tools aren't nearly as intuitive as, say, the double-tap gesture Instagram invented to allow users to "like" a photo. Recording a video is a buggy mess. The "stand-out" features -- filters, a video stabilizer, and the ability to choose which frame represents the video in your friends' Instagram feeds -- are lackluster at best. The entire thing feels like something that should have been introduced a year ago.
And, for all of Systrom's talk of building a communication tool meant to capture and immortalize moments, Instagram is still very much about presentation. You don't just share a video of your cuppa with your friends; you capture the video, apply a filter, throw away a slice of the recording, and choose the frame they're most likely to "like" from their feeds. Other services don't allow anything like this. Vine simply captures video and allows you to share the result when you're done. Snapchat makes it easy to share unfiltered messages and photos with your friends. These apps and services are communications tools -- Instagram, like Facebook, is a vanity mirror.
Instagram does have one thing going for its video product, however: scale. The company today gave more than 130 million people -- who have already shared over 16 billion photos, according to Systrom -- access to its video-sharing tool. That's more than ten times the number of people using Vine, according to the latest announcement.
At that point it might not matter which product is better. Consider it the final Facebook-ification of Instagram, through which the service might be allowed to garner attention and attract users, simply because it's already bigger than the competition.