When competitors won't sell, Zuckerberg calls the man who did: Kevin Systrom

By Erin Griffith , written on December 12, 2013

From The News Desk

Instagram is the billion-dollar purchase that just keeps on giving.

Yes, some of its best innovations of late came from copying competitors -- Vine's video, and, as of today, Snapchat's private messaging -- but at least those features are popular with users.

Facebook can't say the same for its own copycat efforts. Copies of Twitter's hashtags and embedded posts haven't really taken off. Facebook Places, the Foursquare killer, didn't kill Foursquare. And of course, Poke, the Snapchat clone, failed miserably.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg couldn't clone Snapchat, he tried to buy it. That didn't work -- Snapchat reportedly turned down his outrageous $3 billion offer -- and so Zuckerberg called in his copycat hitman, Kevin Systrom.

Today in New York, Systrom revealed Instagram Direct, a way for Instagram users to send private photos directly to other users. Even a child would recognize it as a copy of Snapchat. Users can share their private photos directly with up to 15 users who follow them. Instagram's unique twists include the ability to have a conversation about the photo in the comments below it. Also, brands may use it as a way to collect user-generated photos instead of using hashtags. The feature seems useful, if a bit boring. (It includes an inbox. Who wants another inbox?)

Just like when Vine was all over the news and Instagram countered it with Instagram Video, Facebook now has an answer for all those pesky questions about teens and Snapchat. Look, we have Instagram Direct!

The problem will be if Instagram starts looking like the kitchen sink of apps, the repository of all of Facebook's me-too features. Unlike all of Facebook's other acquisitions, Instagram has been kept fairly separate from Facebook, which is a good thing, design-wise. The Facebook app is too feature-heavy, with menus-upon-menus of settings, games, groups, pages, favorites, chat lists, messages, notifications, requests and settings. That's all on top of the main reason you're even there, the News Feed.

Instagram, on the other hand, has always been praised for its clean, lightweight design. Systrom often talks about how he stripped features out of Instagram to make the app more streamlined and intuitive. The app's clean look is held up as a big reason Instagram became a billion-dollar winner while the zillion other filtered photosharing apps withered away.

If Instagram has to react every time a new app gets hot with teenagers, it could lose the simple magic that keeps attracting new users to the app. Instagram could become a bloated, unoriginal mess.

It's also unclear whether Systrom likes playing the role of the hitman. It's very possible that Instagram was working on "Direct" before Facebook tried to buy Snapchat. If so, the fact that Zuckerberg offered Snapchat $3 billion in the interim had to make Systrom feel queasy about his CEO's faith in Instagram's "Snapchat killer." And the $3 billion offer for Snapchat might have made Systrom second-guess selling Instagram for a mere billion. Instagram could have just as easily taken the round of funding it had just raised and continued its breakneck growth.

Certainly, Systrom is already queasy about being labeled Zuckerberg's bitch. When Instagram disabled Twitter card integration, everyone assumed it was part of the rivalry between Twitter and Facebook, meaning Instagram was doing Facebook's dirty work by cutting Twitter out. But Systrom owned up to it, telling the press that the decision was his, not Zuckerberg's.

So whose decision was it to copy Snapchat? Systrom has hinted in the past that Instagram may someday introduce targeted sharing, to help users "find the people who are uniquely suited to see that photo in a certain way," when sharing their photos.

Today, Systrom appeared stilted in his practiced presentation of Instagram Direct. His speech started with a rambling walk through the history of photo sharing, including bizarre statements like "A curious thing happened. Our phones got cameras, or, in some ways, our cameras got phones." Huh?

Photography is "all about communication," he said, and Instagram about "sending photos to other people, because photos alone are just art." It felt like a stretch to explain why our favorite filtered photo feed needs a private messaging feature. In the past, Systrom has touted the fact that Instagram is the first social network to do public photosharing at mass scale. Sending private messages doesn't really play to that unique strength.

Regardless of whose idea it was, Systrom can sleep easy that the new feature isn't a direct rip-off of Snapchat. He hasn't copied Snapchat's killer feature, the disappearing photos. When asked if Instagram would consider adding such an option, Systrom had, again, a very practiced answer:

"Whether it's text or videos, Instagram is focused in sharing the world's moments. We're best at archiving those (so people can share them with their friends)," he said. "It's important to be able to go back to them, and if not they're not there anymore, you can't have that conversation."

Above all, this proves how valuable Instagram is to Facebook. The app is just getting started in its advertising efforts, which will likely become a sizable business for Facebook. But the intangible value Instagram creates in fending off competitors is even more more meaningful.

The copycat label may sting, but you have to hand it to Systrom for once again walking the fine line between responding to competition but not looking like a pathetic rip-off artist the way Facebook did with Poke. Instagram Direct is different enough from Snapchat that Systrom can say with a straight face that this is still an Instagram product. Instagram power users will likely eat it up the way they did with video, and it may staunch the bleeding of users spending more time outside of the Facebook/Instagram walls.

But Zuckerberg should tread carefully: Too many more calls to his copycat hit man and he may destroy the reason he paid $1 billion for the distinct mobile social network to begin with.

Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.