Facebook just spent $1 billion to acquire Instagram, the 554 day-old company behind an app that, at least on the surface, offers everything you can already get on Facebook, only with filters that make drab photographs look pretty.
You can post photos, "like" the pictures other users have shared, or leave comments on friends' images -- just like you can on Facebook.
So why would the Godzilla of social networks bother itself with this gnat of an app?
Understanding Facebook's Instagram affair means starting with the simple fact that the app mastered an activity that makes up the heart and soul of Facebook: sharing photos among friends. There's a key difference between the two social services, however, and one that has made Instagram's images worth a thousand words to its users and $1 billion to Facebook. While the images on Facebook are an archive, the images on Instagram are alive.
Facebook showcases memories -- last week's wedding, dinner, birthday, vacation -- while Instagram frames moments -- the tulips you just passed, the sun hitting a building during your morning run, or the bizarre quote you saw on a talk show.
Designed from the ground up for our phones, not our laptops, Instagram has, more gracefully than Facebook, leveraged the simple fact that we have a camera in our pockets more often than a pen to create an outlet for images that are intimate and immediate.
It taps into our desire to share and be seen, but lets us do so exclusively via images, which require less thought than text to both post and process. There's no fiddling around with a mini keyboard, no danger of typos, and less risk of offending. The barebones design -- five clicks and you're done -- makes it blissfully simple to abide by Instagram's unspoken manifesto: share now, share often, and share something lovely. And with the knowledge that there'll be a new delicacy every time we check back, Instagram keeps us coming back regularly for more.
Instagram is also a storytelling app, one that speaks to our fast click nation's growing addiction to visual status updates that are beautiful and of the moment. Facebook understood early on that if you control how people share photos with each other, you control how people share stories with each other -- and if you control that, then you control social. By bringing Instagram into the fold, Facebook is better positioned to tap into the photo sharing we do "in the moment" and safeguard its status as the web's photo album and teller of stories about people.
The Financial Times' Duncan Robinson recently marveled that Facebook had spent $1 billion to buy an app "used mainly by hipsters to take photos of their lunch - in sepia." Robinson's jab actually helps explain what's so compelling about the app, and it's no coincidence that same critique was leveled at Twitter in its early days, when it was dismissed as a forum for chatter about meals and bathroom breaks.
Like Twitter, Instagram offers real-time access to the lives of the people who matter to us, and next to their constantly updated feeds, the pace of new posts in Facebook's News Feed appears positively glacial. Having missed its shot at snapping up Twitter, Facebook may be again trying to nail the insta-update with Instagram.
The power of pretty can't be ignored, either. On the whole, Facebook photos lack the dreaminess of Instagram's snapshots, as well as the focus on our surroundings, rather than ourselves. Scrolling through my Instagram account reveals images of a lavendar bouquet, a dog lounging at the beach, and a metal subway panel reading "hope." Instagram belongs to an increasingly popular cohort of sites, including Pinterest, Tumblr and Svpply, that provide a platform for us to share pictures that inspire and amuse -- and, quite often, aren't of us. What I wrote of Pinterest holds true for Instagram: It's "look at this," not "look at me." On Facebook, that's rarely been the case.
Say what you will about filters -- they deliver some delicious eye candy. And while perusing photos on Facebook inevitably makes me feel that I was left out of whatever get-together I see, Instagram just feels good. It offers an entry point into a world where everything is lovely and, quite frequently, seen through rose-colored glasses. In an age of information overload, it feels good to get a brain vacation from Facebook and see our friends' "wish you were here" images.
A professor at the University of California Berkeley recently found that even automated text messages reminding his patients to "reflect on positive interactions" could make them feel more cared for, connected and supported. Instagram, which largely showcases "positive interactions," also stands to soothe the soul. It seems hard to put a price on that.