Why Instagram Just Broke Itself
Things are breaking. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Social networks were supposed to bring us together, or whatever, but that could be increasingly difficult as the social networks themselves continue to put up new barriers — both to keep users contained within their experiences and to keep other social networks out. That’s exactly what Instagram just did, surgically removing and walling itself off from Twitter in a single stroke.
Users might’ve noticed within the last day or so that Instagram photos were being rendered strangely on Twitter, particularly in the iOS client. This morning Twitter revealed it’s because Instagram dropped its support for Twitter Cards — the framework that Twitter’s using to power all of the “rich” experiences in the New Twitter, like embedded photos, videos and mini-apps. Twitter, in turn, fell back on older technology in order to display Instagram photos, resulting in the weirdness, like odd cropping. On Android, users aren’t even seeing oddly rendered photos — they’re not seeing photos at all, simply links out to Instagram, because Twitter doesn’t have the fallback technology for its Android client. But what Android users are seeing is a preview of what everybody is going to see soon when Instagram photos are shared through Twitter: a link. No image, no metadata, no neat, clean little unit of Instagram goodness. Just a link.
Why would Instagram intentionally break its own integration with Twitter? Because it doesn’t want you to experience Instagram on Twitter; it wants you to experience it on Instagram. This, it turns out, is much of the reason Instagram launched its very Facebook-y profiles a month ago, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom explained a bit ago at the Le Web conference. “Really it’s just about where to you go to consume that image… and we want that to be on Instagram.com.” Not Twitter. Very specifically, not Twitter, in fact. Systrom said that cutting off Twitter “is more of a one-off, trying to figure out specifically with our Twitter integration.” Its integration with Tumblr will remain untouched, mentioning offhand that “we get a lot of traffic on Tumblr.” Systrom also tooks pains to stress that this new social cold war — the Photo Wars, Nick Bilton calls it — with Twitter is “not a consequence of us being acquired” by Facebook. Which is more believable, at least, than his insistence that Instagram still has a “really good relationship with Twitter.”
Some context to note at this point: Twitter cut off Instagram’s access to users’ friends list a few months ago, shortly after it was acquired by Facebook, in order to keep its hands off of Twitter’s “interest graph.” (To self-plagiarize, the interest graph is the most valuable thing that Twitter owns. It’s the sum of all of their data, the heart of what makes everything they’re doing work.) Twitter cut off Tumblr a few weeks later, for essentially the same reason. And to be fair, it seemed fairly likely that Instagram would eventually and continually endure more shit from Twitter on its path to becoming a Media Giant given the way Twitter’s been acting toward basically everybody in the Twitter ecosystem over the last year, particularly with its new focus on photos. (As AllThingsD’s Mike Isaac points out, Twitter’s even been working on Instagram-style filters for photos.)
Not to recount the entirety of the “Twitter is becoming a media company” narrative, but the reason it’s being so protective of what it’s doing, and outwardly hostile toward certain developers and services, is that Twitter wants you to experience it in a very defined way, one that’s increasingly filled with photos and videos and other media experiences. And it wants to make money by selling ads in that media-rich stream. A lot like Facebook. The irony here being Instagram is cutting out Twitter because it’s now essentially on the same, Facebook-y path: It wants you to experience Instagram in a very specific way, and it so happens that this new way to experience Instagram on the web looks very conducive to advertising.
Of course, these moves to disconnect the already thin strands that connect these social networks aren’t all about ads and revenue. But it’s most certainly not, even as much as Twitter and Instagram would like to claim otherwise, about delivering the absolute best experience to users. In Instagram’s case, Systrom claims that the best way to experience Instagram through Twitter is on Instagram.com, not inside of Twitter. But seeing a sad link that I have to click through to get to a browser to switch over to the Instagram app — all without knowing what I’m clicking over to see — is not a good experience at all. And this is what Instagram is going to be on Twitter. The best Instagram experience, frankly, is the most convenient one. Sometimes that’s on Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes it’s on Instagram itself. (Ironically, one of the reasons Instagram worked so well in the beginning is that it allowed you to seamlessly connect it to all your social networks simultaneously.) Twitter’s no less guilty of sacrificing users on the altar of “experience”: Even though it doesn’t have an official Twitter app for Windows 8, and won’t give a timeline on when it will, it won’t allow third-party developers to have more than 2100,000 users sign up for their app — meaning lots of Windows 8 users are in fact having terrificially shitty Twitter experiences.
Everyone is a multitude on the internet: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and whatever other social thing we’re on are all little bits of who we are or whatever we’re choosing to project outward. As online identity continues to congeal into something that attempts to truly approximate who we are as a person, or at least something that legitimately stands in for us — look at the rise of unmasking trolls over the last year, with people increasingly held accountable in the real world for the actions of their internet avatar — it’s jarring to think that these identities are actually becoming even more fragmented and disconnected. And that these services are making political and economic choices to engender this by actively breaking themselves, the connections between each other and ultimately the wispy ties between our slivers of selves, scattered across a series of URLs. There are a lot of complex, nuanced things one could say about this direction, but I think I’ll just go with “ugh.”