Video Killed The Instagram Star

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Instagram, an app best known for photo-sharing, added video last week, as it (and parent Facebook) sought to defend against the advance of Twitter’s fast-growing video-sharing app, Vine. The hope was to give its users a whole new way to share what is happening around them with friends. But while it was an ambitious new feature for the company to add, the end result has been that Instagram has sacrificed the user experience for those consuming content.

Becoming “Instagram for Video”

More than a year ago, Hunter Walk broke down the comparison between photos and videos and exactly why it was so difficult for someone to become the “Instagram for video“:

“Think about the photos you look at in either your social feeds or specific photos sites: 99% of them interest you because the subject(s) and/or camera holder is someone you know (or you yourself). Because pictures are static, you can also grok and scan them very quickly, meaning the “cost” of a bad picture is low, hence you are interested in pictures from a wider variety of friends.”

That’s not necessarily true for video, where there’s “a much higher cost to watching a video,” he argued. Viewers are much less willing to invest the time needed in a video to find the part that’s interesting. Especially not if they came to it not expecting video.

And here is the trouble that Instagram finds itself in: It didn’t fundamentally make video creation more artistic, nor did it make video consumption any more enjoyable. In fact, the few “features” it added to differentiate itself from Vine — the availability of 15 seconds versus 6, and video filters — have both been done before.

A singularity of purpose

It’s not just that Instagram failed to make video easier to create or more enjoyable to watch. It’s that, in shoehorning video into an app that users had previously used exclusively for photos, it ruined the core user experience for everyone.

Think about all of the best, most popular apps out there today. Almost every single one of them does one thing, and it does it well. There’s Twitter for broadcasting short messages of text with the world. There’s Snapchat for sending ephemeral messages to your friends. And there’s Vine for shooting and sharing short videos.

Instagram used to be one of those types of apps. It used to be the app for sharing and viewing beautiful photos from friends. But now, with the addition of video, that singularity of purpose is gone. Users who had spent the last few years creating highly curated lists of their favorite mobile photographers have spent the last few days wading through a sea of crappy video selfies. By introducing one little feature to its toolset, Instagram is pushing those hardcore users out the door.

Can Instagram be saved?

As can be the case whenever a company with a large user base announces a major change to its app or website (see Digg, Facebook), the reaction to Instagram’s addition of video has been somewhat negative among pundits, reviewers, and users. The app had lost half a star in its ratings just a day after the video feature had been released. More telling is that, most negative reviews are due to videos clogging up users’ feeds, not posting, or slowing down their ability to view photos.

John Gruber perhaps put it best:

“They did this to spite Vine (and Twitter, which owns Vine), not because it makes Instagram better, because it doesn’t make Instagram better, it makes it worse.”

There are some who believe the problem will be self-correcting. Everyone is rushing to shoot videos on Instagram now, but over time people will stop experimenting and uploading crappy videos to the service. On the other hand, we’ll likely see more thoughtful, more artistic videos begin to emerge on the platform. When that happens, those people argue, users will begin to find a lot more value in having videos in their Instagram feeds.

Others suggest that Instagram allows user to filter out videos or simply separate its feeds into photos and videos. That would have the effect of letting those who show up just for the videos to still have access to them, while restoring the photo-only Instagram feed for everyone else.

That might improve things, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Instagram we have now is not the Instagram we all came to love over the last few years. It’s unlikely that its 130 million users will leave en masse and find another photo-sharing app to idolize in its place.

But maybe they find themselves opening Instagram just a little bit less. And then sharing just a little bit less. And so on and so on.