Facebook, Instagram, and the dethroning of content

I like taking retro photos with my mobile phone. I like sharing those photos with my contacts on social networks. So why am I not that happy about the recent Facebook acquisition of Instagram?

To be fair, I only started playing with Instagram a week or so ago, when the Android version of the app became available. I already have a perfectly good solution for taking retro photos, but wanted to check out what all of the fuss was about. So my concerns here are really more philosophical than practical.

I had a chance to think about this during a walk to work this week, while listening to a discussion on the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast about this very subject. The discussion on the podcast brought up a couple of interesting points that help explain my apprehension.

1. Heavy vs. light: Instagram, like Twitter, is a “lightweight” social network, based on one-way decisions to “follow” someone else’s stuff. Facebook, on the other hand, requires a two-way agreement to become “friends,” which implies, both practically and semantically, a more serious commitment (relatively speaking). In other words, “following” is easier, and feels less constraining, than “friending”. In addition to the extra “weight” of the connections, Facebook also has a tendency to prioritize sharing over privacy, which I find intrusive at times. For example, I’m not a fan of the Washington Post Social Reader, for example, which essentially requires me to report to my friends every time I read a Post article.

I know that Facebook doesn’t plan to integrate Instagram into the Facebook-verse yet, but I admit that the possibility that Facebook will bring Instagram into the fold gives me pause. I like the lightweight Twitter model better than the Facebook version, and I want to have the flexibility to share my photos through the networks I choose, depending on my mood and the subject matter. I still try to maintain different personas, or at least different sets of subject matter, in different places, so I want to share different pictures in different places.

2. The end of “photos”? Mobile devices and social networks are changing the way many of us create and use photos. Back in the days when cameras were cameras, and not always connected to the Internet, the model was clear: first you create some images, and then decide what to do with them. That model stayed more or less the same through the era of film (family slide shows) and into the digital age, where Photoshop replaced hours of mucking around with chemicals in darkrooms.

Facebook, Instagram, and similar advances in mobile tech and social networks, flip the model, making the social sharing more important than the content itself. A photo is just one way among many of sharing something about you and your life with your friends. I have embraced this type of social photography, but as a photo buff from way back (I spent many hours in darkrooms playing with black and white prints), I am hoping that the rise of social photos, strengthened by the Instagram-Facebook deal, does not eliminate other ways of using the Internet to focus on photos as photos (flickr, I mean you, as I wrote earlier), and not just as one more aspect of sharing.

Taking this a step further, I suspect that the size of the Instagram deal suggests that the old conventional wisdom about the Internet, “content is king,” may no longer be true. The new rule seems to be “connection is king”; content has been dethroned, and now serves its former ruler.

Of course, that doesn’t really explain Pinterest

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