Yesterday Twitter announced a big update to its mobile app that lets users add filters to photos before tweeting them. The filters make your photos look a lot like Instagram photos, and intentionally so. Instagram, which Facebook acquired back in April, has grown to more than 100,000,000 users — and Twitter thinks it has figured out why. Google also took note of Instagram’s runaway success and acquired Snapseed, an excellent app for editing and applying filters to photos on the go. But Twitter’s wrong, and so is Google. It’s not about the filters.
Instagram is winning because of the photo-centric community it has built. Instagram created its own medium — a photo stream — that’s easily digestible while exerting minimal brain power. Facebook began with words, and with wall posts, and later evolved to include images. Instagram, on the other hand, was born of a world where people carry smartphones with decent cameras every day and use them to tell stories to friends. Instagram’s success is about a new way to show what you’re up to. It’s about creating a photographic timeline of your life you can flip through as easily as thumbing through a child’s picture book. The filters are just gravy.
"Nearly every professional photo you see has some form of color manipulation applied."
A couple weeks ago I asked Instagram CEO and founder Kevin Systrom if photo filters would be popular in five years. He responded: "Yes. Nearly every professional photo you see has some form of color manipulation applied – though I don’t think it always needs to be retro." He seems to be attributing some of Instagram’s success to how easy it makes improving the appearance of your photos. But that’s only half the story. A moment later, he said: "I think people will realize very quickly that networks take different forms – and most recently we’re seeing the rise of medium-specific networks whether they be around music (Spotify), text (Twitter), or images (Instagram). As time goes on, I think we’re likely to see concentrated verticals of social networks around different media."
If, say, five years down the line Instagram is filled with ads and has ceased to be "cool," maybe people will forget about it and post images to Twitter — but that won’t be because of filters. The Twitter app’s filters look pretty good. There’s also a clever "bird’s eye view" for seeing how several filters look simultaneously. But filters are a red herring. Even Facebook bit on the trend. The magic of Instagram is flipping through photos of friends, and about curating a new kind of profile for the iPhone camera age. Twitter has already taken steps to include a strip of all the photos you’ve uploaded on your Twitter profile — a far more Instagram-esque feature (and a better feature) than filters, I think. But Twitter will always be a text-first medium, no matter how many kinds of Cards it adds, unless it adds a photo stream view, of course. Apps like Twittelator Neue have toyed with both photo streams and photo profiles, and have proven that there are other interesting ways to browse Twitter.
No matter what actions Twitter takes, I’m betting Instagram will still be popular on its own. Why? Because Facebook’s still massively popular, even after slotting ads into your news feed, altering your privacy settings, and changing the way your profile looks every six months. Facebook created a new medium for communication, and so has Instagram. Last week Instagram escalated the conflict by blocking its photos from appearing in Twitter's stream. It was another clue that this isn't about the filters. It's about the medium. In the end, Twitter’s missing the point by focusing so much on filters — it should instead focus on being Twitter.