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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

Column: Instaland

So, you probably heard: Facebook bought Instagram for one billion dollars. Yes, as in nine zeros. I guess Silicon Valley is somehow immune to the concept of economic downturn.

Note to self: spend two years developing a popular mobile app, then sell company – and soul – to Mark Zuckerberg.

The tech world let out a collective gasp when the news broke last Monday, but not because it’s an absurd amount of money. It’s just an absurd amount of money for Instagram. One billion is a hell of a lot for a company that a) has, like, thirteen employees, b) makes no revenue and c) is worth half of that amount. Instagram was valued at $500 million just a month ago — still a hefty chunk of change, but nothing like the cool billion Facebook forked over.

The photo-sharing network may not be worth what Facebook paid, but it’s clear that Instagram is no ordinary app. Over 33 million iOS users (and counting) have downloaded the mobile application — that’s one in every ten iPhones, according to the company’s press center. And since Instagram hit the Android market two weeks ago, the company has added another five million users.

I’ve written about the makings of a mobile-centric, post-PC era before, but nothing validates that trend more than the Instagram acquisition. Instagram is mobile, mobile is the future and Facebook would like very much to be a part of that future. Hence, one billion dollars.

I don’t think I need to explain how much Facebook’s mobile application sucks. It freezes, crashes and fails to load more often than not. It’s an app that suffers from every software-related issue known to mankind, short of self-destruction. The Facebook app, as it stands, is not the way to engage 800 million or so users. Duh.

The mobile space is another animal entirely. When somebody uses a smartphone, their patience is cut in half. People just don’t want to have to stare at a blank, four-by-two-inch screen for too long, and most won’t even wait a full minute before moving onto something else. Standing on a bus hanging onto the overhead railing with one hand and clutching your smartphone with the other, puts your mind in a place that’s very different from sitting at a desk. Such is the reality of mobile phone use.

These revelations have been long realized by Instagram, who could potentially serve to dramatically raise the Facebook’s mobile app’s caliber. Users edit and share photos seamlessly, thanks to Instagram’s careful engineering and dedication to speed and simplicity. With not much more than your fingertips at your disposal (quite literally), less is certainly more when it comes to apps.

The app has few editing functions — filters, frames that correspond with those filters, blur, brighten and rotate. The edited images are then uploaded to Instagram’s servers, enabling users to share their pictures with their Instagram followers or cross-post the uploads to other social media accounts.

Instagram is a well-oiled machine indeed, which is why the Facebook acquisition sparked so much user rebellion from its community. What will become of Instagram with Facebook as its commander?

Mark Zuckerberg and company still have a lot to learn from a little company like Instagram. Hopefully this means that Big Brother will intervene very little, and commit to “growing and building Instagram independently,” which he promised in his press release.

But I see increasing collaboration between the two, a sentiment best illustrated by the Washington Post’s Dan Zak: “Just as Instagram makes bad photos look good and good photos look great, Facebook makes you look happy and loved if you’re not, and joyous and adored if you are. Self-brand and share. Filter and share. Share the edited stuff, the varnished stuff, the stuff with the halo around it. Take a step away from truth for the sake of beauty.”

We may not get to reap that one-billion dollar reward, but we will see a growing number of people, equipped with Instagram and their  smartphones, oversharing moments from an alternative radiant, sun-drenched world.

How lucky for us.

This Monday is particularly brutal for NICOLE NGUYEN, who just drove eight hours through the night from Coachella. Send your condolences to niknguyen@ucdavis.edu.


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