Instagram, the photo-sharing social network, became a household name with its $1 billion dollar price tag. Early last April, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sat down with Instagram’s founder Kevin Systrom to discuss an acquisition. Two days later, it was official: Facebook would buy the 13-employee, revenue-free company for the astronomically high price tag of 1 billion dollars. Zuckerberg’s stamp of approval sparked Instagram’s fastest-ever growth spurt; in the following months, it grew from 25 million active users to over 100 million today. However, unlike its social media ancestors Facebook and Twitter, Instagram’s charm has not faltered despite its Insta-growth.
Once upon a time in a cold, dark and boring town in Massachusetts, Facebook was born. It was an instant hit: Harvard kids couldn’t get enough. Students at Yale, Columbia and Stanford loved it. It was a personal network of friends and friends of friends — no advertisements, no company pages, no spam. Though some of its best features were still to come, Facebook was invented as a tool to socialize online and to share pictures with friends — not a mechanism to make billions of dollars.
Twitter, Facebook’s short-winded cousin, followed a similar path to popularity. It was built as a fun side project, but in the process it accomplished something truly revolutionary. Twitter gave everyone an equal, 140-character voice. Now, it serves as a tool for politicians to reach their constituents and even for protesters to mobilize uprisings. Twitter began as a democratizing forum in which the world could interact — not a billboard to bring in millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
Today, Facebook is cluttered with banner ads, company promotions and annoying event invitations. Facebook no longer caters only to people; universities have pages, companies have pages, restaurants have pages and nonprofits have pages. Facebook is no longer a network of friends. It is a network of organizations competing for our money. Users have been dehumanized — we are simply dollar signs clicking our way through the Internet.
Similarly, although the advertisements on Twitter are less prevalent, they are nonetheless intrusive. Twitter, for example, allows companies to purchase Promoted Tweets. These tweets appear in our feeds without us granting them any permission — they are just there. These social networks are no different than driving on I-95: It is literally impossible to escape the billboard advertisements.
Instagram is different. Instagram is our selfless friend. Instagram is the peaceful Vermont road without any billboards.
On Instagram, I follow my friends to see funny and artistic photos from their lives. The absence of ads fosters a much more familial environment — one that we no longer experience on Facebook or Twitter. On Thursdays, for example, users enjoy Throwback Thursday — #tbt — by sharing childhood pictures. There are some companies on Instagram, but they aim to enhance their followers’ Instagram experience. They do not try to sell products. For instance, Patagonia posts pictures of mountaineering and surfing adventures from around the world. They often do not even mention their clothing. Moreover, the user chooses to follow a company; companies have no way of entering a user’s feed otherwise. I enjoy Instagram because I see what I want to see — not what Instagram wants me to see.
But I get it: Instagram must monetize. Zuckerberg will never be able to justify the high-priced acquisition if Instagram does not generate revenue. Our Instagram feeds will eventually be filled with advertisements. It is inevitable.
However, placing advertisements in Instagram runs the risk of degrading the product. Aside from the obvious unpleasant aesthetics and distractions, advertisements also divert the company’s talent away from core goals. Rather than spending time to evolve the product, the company’s talent must sell ads, mine data and write more code. Jan Koum, the co-founder of the mobile messaging service WhatsApp, remarked on his blog about the company’s choice to charge $0.99 for the app in lieu of advertisements: “When advertising is involved you the user are the product.”
We have seen this story unfold — twice. With Facebook and Twitter, we became products of our own technologies. But perhaps the third time is the charm. I hope that Instagram maintains its status as an intimate and noninvasive social network.
Peter Ginsberg is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .