It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Instagram was an app people used to make their photos look good. A retro wash of sepia here, a studied overexposure there, and, voilà, you could fool your friends into thinking you had an artist's eye.
That was before the advent of Snapchat. For the past few quarters, Instagram has been sprinting with its hair on fire away from the idea that a good photo is one that looks like one a professional might have taken. Its only goal, seemingly, has been to make sure anything people like doing on Snapchat they're able to do on Instagram, whether that's marking up photos with drawings and stickers, publishing slideshow-like "Stories" that disappear after a day, or navigating between parts of the app by swiping around randomly. As of Tuesday, the cloning is complete, with Instagram adding face filters that allow users to alter their own appearances with augmented reality overlays.
There is every reason to think users like these features. They're fun on Snapchat, so why wouldn't they be fun on Instagram? Facebook, which owns Instagram, says they are popular, too, with its version of Stories already in wider use than Snapchat's original. Skepticism that Snapchat can outcompete a Facebook clearly intent on burying it has convinced many stock analysts Snap Inc. is a lost cause.
But even if cloning Snapchat is an effective way of killing Snapchat, does that make it a good strategy for Instagram? It might not.
The story of Instagram is inseparable from the product that made it possible: Apple's iPhone. Before the iPhone, most consumer electronics suffered from what James Surowiecki of The New Yorker termed "feature creep": In a bid to make them appealing to users, designers loaded them up with so many bells and whistles, they became aesthetically nightmarish and difficult to operate.
"In theory, the best strategy would be to make the complex simple, packaging all the power and the options consumers think they want into a design that they'll find easy to use," Surowiecki wrote in April 2007, a few weeks before the iPhone debuted. "This is clearly what Apple believes it will be offering with the iPhone: a device with a remarkable range of features, coupled with an uncluttered touchscreen interface."
It certainly did turn out to be the best strategy, and the version of Instagram that launched in October 2010 took a lot of inspiration from it. It was clean and minimalist, offering a handful of filters and editing tools. You could post photos, follow other people, like their photos, and comment on them. That was about it.
It was a smash hit -- not just with users but, soon enough, with advertisers, who loved Instagram for being everything other social media platforms weren't. An Instagram feed was a stream of pleasant-to-beautiful images, heavy on lifestyle content like vacations and food, light on harassment, trolling, gruesome news photos, unhinged political rants, and anything else you see a hundred times a day on Facebook and Twitter. It was uniquely friendly--to people and advertisers.
Snapchat's popularity was an implicit rebuke: Sure, Instagram was a safe place for brands, but only because it was so heavily curated. It had ceased to be a place where real users could enjoy themselves. And fun, Snapchat posited, is better than perfect.
Tools like face filters and disappearing stories undoubtedly encourage Instagram users to create content when they'd otherwise be too shy to post something amid all those picturesque sunsets and sculpted cappuccino swirls. But there are also plenty of people who just like to look at lifestyle porn, and plenty of advertisers who only want their brands surrounded by it.
Feature creep happens the way Jake Barnes went bankrupt: gradually and then suddenly. That's what makes it so hard to avoid. Every new feature you add makes your product a little better, until they all make it a lot worse. Instagram is currently a vastly more profitable and popular enterprise than Snapchat. It would be strange to abandon everything that made it so out of paranoia or spite.