Credit where it's due: One thing Facebook has done very right

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 10, 2013

From The News Desk

We've given Facebook a lot of flack here at PandoDaily for what it's done wrong.

Kevin Kelleher has described it as a "meh" Internet giant. Hamish McKenzie has exposed broken promises when it comes to Facebook's platform and unsavory compromises when it comes to Mark Zuckerberg's initiative. And I've criticized Facebook on the product front: Both a growing sense that it's no longer innovating with cheesy rip-offs like "Poke" and the destruction of great apps it purchased like Karma, which was supposed to underlie Facebook Gifts. The launch of Facebook Home -- the much rumored and long awaited "Facebook Phone" -- didn't go so hot either.

Facebook is emblematic of the wave of Web 2.0 companies that were all about sticking with product CEOs -- as opposed to sales-y CEOs or "grown up" CEO supervision. And a big thing that rankled Wall Street was that Zuckerberg sent clear signals in the S-1 and the road show that he'll still be focused on product.

But somehow Facebook's product has been notably lackluster since it went public. The big wins being touted are increasingly financial wins -- the stock has been surging, and mobile ads are doing well. Great! But none of that delights users. And without continually delighting users Facebook risks being the next Yahoo, not the next Google.

What of that supposed laser focus on product?

Like I said, we've spent a lot of time harping on what's been going wrong at Facebook. So I figured I should give them credit for one thing that appears to be going very right: Instagram. It's pretty much the only reason I'm engaging with Facebook on a day-to-day basis anymore, and Instagram's video product is the first product to come out of Facebook in a long time that has simply delighted me as a user.

I didn't expect that. At first Instagram's video feature seemed like a cheesy rip off of Vine -- just another salvo in the frequently childish pirate ship war between Twitter and Facebook, and another cheesy Poke-like rip off. In fact, our own Nathaniel Mott wasn't wowed by the debut, finding it unintuitive and buggy.

A few months into using it and seeing my Instagram feed increasingly populated with videos, and I have to disagree. In my opinion, Instagram for video has proven far superior to Vine. I find it intuitive and well designed. But most importantly, it seamlessly fit into the existing Instagram experience without being obnoxious -- like a video ad suddenly blaring on a site.

Frequently Vine has more beautiful, quirky, or artistic videos, and many people love the shorter constraints and looping features. But if Vine is the product for the early adopters; Instagram is the one for the masses.

You don't have to download a new app, get used to its navigation, come up with another username, find new users all over again, or any of the rest of the friction that comes with a new app -- even one integrated into an existing platform I use regularly. I like Vine, but I never think to do a Vine. But an Instagram video is right there where I am already, and I enjoy those I see in the same way I enjoy the rest of my Instagram feed.

This is the big reason all the other "Instagrams of Video" never worked. The Instagram of video just belongs on Instagram. The same reason we didn't need a Facebook for dog lovers or baby boomers. They could just be on Facebook.

Simply put, good products just make you smile. And I've been smiling a lot with Instagram lately.

The idea may be a rip off -- but Instagram is the perfect platform for a product like this, because it is all about self-expression. Twitter is about news and information, and not everyone wants self-expression crammed in there. Thematically and technically, Vine just strikes me as a bit more of a clumsy fit.

Not surprisingly, Instagram video isn't woven into my Facebook page very well. Unlike large Instagram photos dotting my timeline, Instagram videos show up in unappealing little boxes no one wants to click on.

But that's okay. It's sort of a metaphor for why Instagram video is arguably the first delightful product we've seen out of Facebook post-IPO: Because it's not actually from Facebook. Facebook did what it said and left Instagram alone. Kevin Systrom may be one of the more underrated product CEOs who's not actually a CEO.

It's ironic that it's a lone user bright spot, because the Instagram acquisition veered dramatically from what had worked for Facebook with acquisitions in the past. The only reason it was allowed to stay independent was its sheer size and that Facebook needed Instagram more than Instagram needed Facebook. It had a luxurious bargaining position smaller deals don't have.

And as a user, I'm grateful that Systrom has made the most of it, and Zuckerberg hasn't gone back on his acquisition promises.

Of course the real test of Systrom's chops is coming up with Instagram's recently announced intention to start monetizing. Like a lot of product oriented CEOs, Systrom is claiming the ads will enhance the product and be something users will actually love. I've heard that one about a jillion times before, and rarely seen it done.

Staying independent and continuing to innovate post-acquisition is one thing; making me love ads jammed into my very personal feed feels almost impossible. 

[Image via Shutterstock]