Fifteen things I would do with $1 billion if I was on the new Facebook/Instagram team.
By now you've certainly heard about Facebook's acquisition of Instagram for the somewhat insane sum of $1 billion in cash and stock. And while the amount makes me feel a little like I've stepped back into the late 90's (the purchase price amounts to paying more than $37 for each of Instagram's 27 million users), I'm not writing to debate whether or not Mark Zuckerberg has lost his frickin' mind or not. There are plenty of other folks doing that right now. Nope, instead I'd like to focus on some ideas for using that money (and Instagram's new relationship with Facebook) to bring about the next evolution in social networking.
There are currently a number of forces at work here that must be in the minds of those behind this deal. First, mobile is huge and, as I argued in my last column, the lines between "desktop" and "mobile" are blurring to the point that the distinctions are becoming meaningless except for specialized, high-powered workstation applications. Smartphones, tablets, and "ultrabook" laptops (combined with cheap and easy-to-find Wi-Fi and ever cheaper 3/4G connections) are leading the charge toward ubiquitous computing. And while Google Glasses are probably a little ways off, the idea of easy-to-use, always-on augmented reality spurred by Google's announcement is already inspiring a number of competitors, driving innovations even faster. The trend vectors are there right in front of us: like it or not, we're all going to be "online" all the time in the not so distant future.
At the same time that technology is allowing our devices to connect to the Internet pretty much anytime and anywhere, near-ubiquitous social networking (OK…Facebook) and other social media channels have been connecting us to each other. The combination of mobile and social has converged to the point that many of us are never "alone." No matter where we go and what we do, as long as we have a link to a cell tower, we've got our tribe with us.
We haven't even begun to understand the impact that these two converging trends are having (and will have) on our culture. There are hints: mobile search is expected to surpass desktop search in a couple of years and social interactions are increasingly driving how we live and play and buy. And while some may argue that having access to all the information in the world (and a huge number of the people, too) might be making us "stupid," it's hard to argue that things aren't changing. Drastically.
So what does this have to do with the immanent marriage of Instagram and Facebook? Mainly this: the problem with all these separate social channels and all the information available on the web and all the stuff in the real world that we have to deal with is that they're…well…separate. Sure, interfaces like iOS have certainly made all of this a lot easier to use (just think back to your mobile phone - no matter how "smart" - of a decade ago), but from the standpoint of truly being able to integrate all the information we produce, all the information our friends produce, and all the information we want, we're a ways off.
Probably the coolest thing about the Instagram/Facebook combo is that Instagram is all about the visual in a way that's elegant, simple, and easy to use. And for all the utility of words, we're hard-wired by evolution to respond more directly to images. Saying that "an image is worth a thousand words" isn't hyperbole.
But images are just the starting point. They could be more of a focal point. Just as visual interfaces opened up the world of computing to the masses, using images as "gateways" to information might just be the way to more intuitively guide us to the information we need (and want) as we link the real world to the virtual. Even with location-aware photography apps, pulling together the information you want (or want to share) today requires a whole range of apps, web pages, and channels. Merging the mobile image-making and image-sharing capabilities of Instagram with the social connections of Facebook and the information available to us from the web could result in social media that ties us together more closely, helps us in our everyday lives, and provides us with a way to collaborate far beyond what's available to us today.
So what would I do with a billion bucks if I was one of the geniuses on the new Facebook/Instagram team to work toward this vision? Here are a few suggestions:
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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