I Love The Smell Of Sepia Tone In The Morning

In three short weeks it will be 2013. Someone may want to send a fax to Flickr and Twitter to let them know.

Over the past couple of days, both of these services have pulled a move straight out of 2010: they launched new versions of their mobile apps with — get this — filters. Filters! These guys have millions of dollars and thousands of employees at their disposal and this is the kind of innovation they’re dicking around with.

Look, I love filters just as much as the next San Franciscan that is currently rocking a beard and drinking a soy latte. Share a photo of a tree in sepia tone and I will totally like the shit out of it. I may even comment — but only if you haven’t overdone the HDR.

But let’s not beat around the bush: both Flickr and Twitter have rolled out these updates thinking filters will somehow make them more competitive with Instagram. These are purely reactive moves that show a fundamental misunderstanding of why Instagram is what it is.

Hint: it has basically nothing to do with filters.

Twitter and Flickr are making the same mistake that a dozen other photo apps that I can’t even be bothered to remember made in years past. Hell, even Facebook almost made the same mistake before they wised up and made Instagram an offer they couldn’t refuse (right before the release of their own Camera app — which no one seems to use anymore, and hasn’t been updated in months).

Again, these guys think the Instagram phenomenon can be explained away by filters. Instagram has 8 filters? Fuck it, we’ll do 9! It’s simply not that simple.

Filters are a hook, a glittering lure. They gave many people a reason to try Instagram in 2010, but it wasn’t why people really stuck around and kept using the app. That had more to do with simplicity, speed, and being the right app at the right time.

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom admitted as much in a discussion I had with him on stage at LeWeb last week in Paris. He credits the launch of the iPhone 4, with its great camera, for the rise of Instagram as much as anything they actually did with the app itself. Right place. Right time. Right platform. Right app.

But again, that was two years ago. The path to Instagram’s success is now littered with the bodies of apps like Picplz (I remembered one!). And many of those guys at least were a lot closer in terms of timing. But again, they all focused on the filters. A red-tinted herring.

Once the hook was in with Instagram’s filters in 2010, the true value of the network become immediately apparent to anyone willing to look: Instagram turned everyone into a photographer. The filters gave people like me courage to make that jump. It didn’t matter if our pictures were shitty and made only slightly less shitty by the filters. All that mattered was we were all now taking pictures. A lot of them. And we became interested in other peoples’ pictures.

And that mattered because for the first time, there was a social network that could communicate across all languages. Instagram became a visual language at scale.

Twitter has the same scale and there’s no question that photographs are interesting on that network as well. But it’s not the same. There’s a chasm between 140 characters of text in many languages and pictures which will not be fully bridged. Plus, the photo implementation in the mobile apps is way too convoluted (and why on Earth did they have to partner with a third-party, Aviary, to do the filters — Instagram initially made all theirs as a team of two).

Flickr also has a huge scale (though who knows how many active users they still actually have several years into severe neglect by Yahoo), and obviously they’re entirely photo-centric. And while their new app seems very well done, they’re not going to be Instagram either. They had their chance, they blew it.

When Instagram spurned Twitter to go with Facebook, the writing was on the wall for everything that is now playing out. And Twitter’s move into filters looks especially prescient given Instagram’s move to pull their photos out of Twitter cards last week. But let’s not pretend that the addition of filters actually means much of anything in the “photo wars”.

If anything, it means that Twitter and Flickr simply don’t understand the battle they’re actually fighting.

[image via topherchris — and apologies to @mikeisaac for reusing my joke to him earlier]