Instagram: The Problem With Over-the-Top Announcements
At a press conference Thursday in Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters, Instagram's co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom unveiled what had become a very poorly kept secret in the tech press: a 15-second video feature with camera stabilization and a handful of filters.
Shortly after the announcement, which was livestreamed, I downloaded the new version of Instagram. I played around with it. The video feature works well; the user interface is clean, the clip uploaded quickly, and the camera stabilization is surprisingly effective. I felt a little bad for Vine.
Many of the reviews of the actual video feature were mostly positive--The Verge called it a "great feature addition for Instagram" despite a couple of "minor nitpicks." And I would agree.
So I'll admit I was a bit baffled by the almost instantaneous backlash. A steady stream of diatribes against Facebook and Instagram followed throughout the day.
Buzzfeed's John Herrman, for instance, used the news to justify a piece calling Facebook a "clone mill," writing:
This represents Facebook's biggest and most perplexing problem: supreme self-confidence uninhibited by extreme myopia... Another way to interpret this: Facebook is out of ideas. In its view, nobody else can truly innovate, because without Facebook, an innovation doesn't matter--an idea isn't a big idea until it's on Facebook, the real internet, with its billion graphed-out users.
Slate.com's Farhad Manjoo, took the news to opine over the future of Silicon Valley, saying:
Jesus, was this a sad day for Silicon Valley. Kevin Systrom, Instagram's co-founder, is one of the smartest tech product guys in the business. I don't doubt he's proud of the fine work his team has done adding video to Instagram. But the bombastic naiveté with which he and Mark Zuckerberg announced an obvious, already-invented feature upgrade this morning brought me close to weeping for the state of innovation in today's tech industry.
ReadWriteWeb's Taylor Hatmaker called the addition of the video feature "Instagram's Identity Crisis," saying:
With video for Instagram, our beloved single-purpose app suddenly is seeing double... Adding an entirely new medium to the mix changes everything.
Gigaom's Matthew Ingram hated it so much that he said he'd "never click on your video." Quartz's Christopher Mims wrote a very smart, critical piece that argued the video feature was built for advertising.
I don't disagree with most of the criticism here--and I do think Silicon Valley could do a better job of thinking about "big ideas"--but the real problem with yesterday's announcement really had nothing to do with the video feature. The problem with yesterday's announcement was the announcement itself.
The days of launching a new feature through a blog post or press release are long over. Today, it needs to be theatrical and Apple-esque. The formula is straightforward: There needs to be a stage and an audience of tech press and, as Manjoo wrote, "couches, fancy coffee, ambient music." I remember attending a recent Airbnb event, at which Brian Chesky introduced the "Neighborhoods" feature, following a similar pattern. I don't remember his speech but I remember the expensive pastries and baristas.
In other words, product announcements need to feel like something momentous is about to happen to bait the press to cover it as news. And they do.
But when the new features announced are basic and expected, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the events make the features feel somewhat cheap compared to all the attention they get. Put simply, the backlash was more a symptom of high expectations not being met--not anything fundamentally wrong with the product itself.
That's not to say there's no validity to the argument that there's not enough innovation happening at Facebook. But it's the fact that the modern-day announcements are so laced with hubris that something about the whole thing feels icky.