Last week a friend of mine asked me at brunch, innocently enough, “What’s Instagram, and why do you use it?”
I meekly offered the answer, “It’s a way to share photos via the iPhone,” and then, feeling like I hadn’t done it enough justice, went on the defensive and was like, “Oh but it’s really simple and that’s what makes it emotional. Like in one click, I can view all these interwoven stories.” It turns out he used Instagram himself, and just wanted to hear someone describe its appeal.
The appeal of Instagram is, for lack of a better word, simple; the world is moving too damn fast and we don’t want the cognitive load of figuring out what we’re looking at — we just want to see simple pretty things. This simplicity is what makes services like Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest a joy versus other entertainment offerings.
The truth is that on any given day, I’d rather check in on Instagram than watch a movie. Today — from afar — I watched my friends visit Germany, take in the 49r’s vs. Giants game, traverse the Sundance festival and eat at a restaurant on my block. I probably opened the app between 10-15 times. And I watched absolutely no TV today.
When Paul Graham implored startups to “kill Hollywood” last Friday, his point resonated with the tech echo-chamber because in a sense we’re already there — more people visit Zynga games monthly than both the viewership records for television and the Hollywood box office. Giftcards for Facebook Credits populate the aisles of my supermarket checkout — in the same “impulse buy” section as celebrity gossip rags.
Humans have loved stories since the dawn of communication, we’re addicted to entertainment. And we are at a crux in that addiction.
What “kill time” startups like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Zynga and most recently Instagram have in common with the movie and television industry is that they all enable people to entertain themselves, or essentially kill time. What they don’t have in common is that the former are all free, play into our zeitgeist need for simplicity and don’t cost millions of dollars to produce. This is a pain point that Hollywood is currently suffering through.
The most watched television episode in history, the season finale of MASH, drew over 105 million views. Facebook has eight times that many people visit it monthly. The truth is, as much as people passionately cry out against Hollywood’s focus on metrics, anyone who’s sifted through TechCrunch article after TechCrunch article realizes that the Valley is equally as metrics obsessed.
The war for attention leaves Hollywood at a disadvantage. Box office returns are the lowest they have been in 16 years. Why pay $10 to commit to watching something in a theatre when you can watch it at home for much less with the added bonus of being able to check your email? And, why even bother spending two hours of your time sitting and absorbing a complex narrative that isn’t connected to you, when you can pop open your iPhone and get a quick hit of rarefied entertainment from people you actually know — who you can actually relate to as opposed to just project on.
Once in grade school my class held a sleepover so we could watch the entirety of Gone With The Wind and we all stayed awake, rapt by the drama between Scarlett and Rhett. Nowadays I’ve seen people pull out their phones and check Twitter (or worse, fall asleep) half way through something as overly stimulant as Inception. I pull out my phone to run through Instagram every time I’m stuck in a checkout line or any other place I need to kill time — like it’s some sort of entertainment inhaler.
Hollywood just can’t compete with that.