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Instagram: Nostalgia born to sell

Blake J. Graham | Monday, April 16, 2012

On April 9, a seemingly insignificant photo application called Instagram announced it was being purchased by Facebook for a massive billion dollars. 18 months ago, Instagram didn’t exist. It was just an offshoot of an idea rattling around Kevin Systrom’s and Mike Krieger’s heads.

In Jan. 2010, Systrom was bold enough to show a mobile app named Burbn (after his drink of choice) to a couple of investors at a party. The concept was vague: a location-sharing app similar to foursquare, but with some odd photo-sharing functionality. The investors there decided to put $500,000 up, and Systrom began to search for a co-founder. He found a coding expert with a background in psychology, linguistics and philosophy. Mike Krieger joined the two-man Burbn team.

Only after a short time of working together, they realized that Burbn as a product wasn’t possible. The idea was too complicated, but Systrom, who always had an eye for photography, decided the company could focus on the side photo component they had been developing. When Apple’s iPhone 4 came out, they found the perfect device to match their premise. Users could use their app to take a photo, make minor adjustments, add a note and share it. They renamed the app Instagram, as it was an instant telegram.

When it was new, the app experienced tremendous success: 25,000 users in the first 24 hours. Now, Instagram has expanded to Android and iOS mobile operating systems and has a user base of over 40 million.

As the deal was Facebook acquisition of Instagram was announced, many reacted in horror, surprise or confusion. “Instagram is selling out,” the loyal shrieked through tears. “That’s way too much money,” the economically-conscious observed tapping on their calculators. “What’s an Instagram?” the confused mumbled to their neighbors.

No. Instagram is not selling out. They’re not the Beatles – they can’t lose their flavor. They’re just selling. And for those who have been loyal users since the beginning, it breaks my heart to tell you this was always their plan. It was the plan of every investor who put a dime into the company. They had to sell at one point. Why? Because Instagram has no revenue, nor did it have plans to monetize the application. There weren’t going to be ads on the service, nor would they charge for additional features. When you opened up Instagram, all users encountered the purest possible experience, because those making it knew eventually some large company was going to come along and purchase it. They also can’t change much under Facebook – the service is simply too large. Everything people love about Instagram will essentially remain the same. The biggest difference is now, the company is bank-rolled by a giant. And the Blue Behemoth doesn’t want their investment to sour. Anything Systrom and team need, Facebook will foot the bill.

Yes. One billion dollars is a lot of money. In fact, it’s one percent of Facebook’s theoretical worth. Two days before the Facebook announcement, the company was valued at $500 million, based on a new $50 million investment that happened the week prior. Overnight, those investors literally doubled their money. There are many reasons why Facebook would pay that much money for a small company run by thirteen people. The most conclusive is Facebook runs on photographs, and Facebook is awful at photographs. Photos on Facebook are soulless and ugly, where photos on Instagram are simple, meaningful and sexy. People put photos on Facebook so people can see them, but people add photos on Instagram because they like to make them. Another difference is Facebook is full of photos taken of users, where Instagram is composed of images taken by users.

Instagram’s set of photo filters and tweaks give its users control over the photos they take. Not everyone is an artist, but nearly everyone has a camera on their smartphone. Because people have cameras, they take pictures. And, whenever someone is about to press the shutter button, they have to go through a series of artistic decisions: how to hold the camera, where to frame the shot, at which point to focus, etc. The mere fact that everybody has the tool makes them act as artists, even though many have little perceivable skill.

The point of taking a photograph is to capture a moment in time. But the moment the shutter closes and the image is stored, many of the fleeting components of that moment are lost. The smell on the air, the mood of the subject, the sounds in the background and whatnot vanish in the final capture. The photograph represents a visual fraction of the composite moment. Instagram filters provide preset means to tweak the image until it, on average, matches the sentiment external to the image. Being a professional photographer wielding a DSLR is a chore. People practice and train for years to master that art. Instagram is important to users because they can control something they had little handle on previously without going through grueling training or purchasing expensive tools.

Instagram makes its users happy. The people on Instagram truly love the service because they believe they are creating a chronicle accurate to who they are.

Blake J. Graham is a freshman. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.