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:
Voice recognition tagging/titling. Improving the interface (and actually "removing" it by making it voice activated) could help dissolve those lines between you and your device. Being able to take a picture and then instantly tag or title it just by speaking would eliminate the awkwardness of punching on-screen buttons right when you're in the middle of the action.
Voice control. Why do we have to push that button anyway? Being able to take pictures, zoom, etc. just by speaking would make image-making practically automatic.
Narration/transcription. Pictures are about telling stories. But for now we have to rely on hastily-typed messages or somewhat sketchy recall as we sync our photos. Being able to narrate photos would move us out of the realm of the photographic "print" metaphor and into true digital imaging that becomes something different.
"Swarm" view for events. Right now, sharing images requires us to know who we want to share with or who we want to subscribe to. For "events" relying on close relationships with others (such as those with our family), this is OK. In fact, we probably don't want to share those images with the outside world. But when you're in engaged in a large gathering (concert, rally, etc.), part of the reason you're there is to engage in collective experience. Allowing users to share images based on location/event into a collaborative "cloud" would let you experience the event from the perspective of everyone else. Combining this with location awareness would help you navigate the "swarm" of images. And more powerful processing in the future might even allow you to combine all these views into a type of image-based "virtual reality" generated from multiple perspectives. Linking this to Facebook would even give you access to people's impressions of their images and even the conversations around them.
GPS/image recognition search. While we've seen some of these kinds of features in the various augmented reality apps out there (such as Layar), it's still a little sketchy to use and requires proprietary apps and custom-built information. Combining location-awareness with image recognition could take taking and sharing pictures to a whole new level. Google Goggles kind of does this now, but imagine the capability of "tagging" your images of, say, historical sites with their Wikipedia pages or your event pictures with the event schedule, information about who/what you're photographing, and even giving others the ability to sample (or buy) content related to those pictures.
Facial recognition and tagging. In a similar vein, facial recognition software combined with tagging capabilities (similar to what works in iPhoto right now) plus Facebook linkages could take sharing photos of others to a whole other level, especially if done automatically. If you're at a party and a friend takes a picture of you, that picture could automatically show up on your newsfeed and you could be notified that you'd just been photographed…perhaps even with the capability of commenting on the shot.
Instant cloud roll. Considering what's going on in cloud computing these days, it seems pretty silly that we still have to sync our phones with our computers in order to download and manipulate pictures. Sending all images immediately to the cloud (along with associated metadata and other linked information) is definitely the way to go. Yes, this capability is already baked into Instagram, but once it gets seamlessly integrated with Facebook (combined with the inevitable future of unlimited storage), we'll be able to go back and look at the images from our lives anytime and anywhere…and, with permission, so will our friends/family.
Information overlay (in a layer). Providing an information layer (separate from the image but visible as a "heads-up display" overlay) that allows access to information about location, event, people in the picture, etc. could enhance how we use our images and how we augment our memories.
Optical character recognition (OCR). Why oh why are we still typing business cards into our address books (or buying expensive scanners that do it for us)? Optical character recognition could allow us to input that information directly…without scanning QR codes, either.
Instant directions ("Meet me here!"). Location-awareness capabilities have led to a number of location-aware apps, but why can't we use this with our photographs to enhance the real-life experience of meeting people? Take a picture of the restaurant you're entering and the app could pull up location data, put it on a map (along with information about the establishment), and send it to the friends you'd like to drag out of the house. Again, there are various parts and pieces of this capability in different apps now, but combining this with Facebook, images, and the information that could be added automatically from the web would simplify sharing and help us find each other.
Easy location indicator toggle. There are times when you don't want to share your location. Would it be so hard to put a toggle on the interface that lets us easily switch location sharing on and off?
"Walkie talkie" VOIP mode. Yes, there's FaceTime and Skype, but it'd be cool if friends could get real-time narration from you about the picture you're taking…along with the capability to talk back. They could even tell you what they want a picture of and receive it as soon as you take it.
Collaborative photo sessions/photo requests. For all the sharing that's out there, there isn't much real-time collaboration. Adding capabilities that let people collaborate on taking photographs from individual devices (and even manipulating them together) would take photo sharing to a whole new level.
Instant "bad picture" detector. Sure, sometimes blurry/dark/sun-glared is art. Most of the time it's just because we can't hold the phone steady. It'd be great to have a feature (toggle-able, of course) that tells us that we've taken a lousy shot and gives us the option of whether or not to share it.
Calendar integration. Pictures are snippets of time. Integrating them more closely with our calendars (maybe even by providing us the ability to add them to our calendar entries) could help provide additional context to the photos we share. Integrating them into group calendars (a la Google Calendar) would create group "timelines" of shared experiences…and isn't that what combining images and social networks is all about?
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.