10 April, 2012

A billion dollar idea

You can just imagine the conversation…

“So, I’ve made this app.”

 - Okay, what does it do?

“Well, you know those smartphones with the really good cameras?  Well, this app takes a photo with that camera and makes it look like an old polaroid, or a washed-out slide, or one of those lomography photos.”

 - Why would anyone want to do that?

“It looks cool.”

 - If you say so.  How much are you going to charge for it?

“Nothing.  It’s a free download.  But we will host the photos people post.”

 - Ah right, and you’ll have ads there?

“Um, no.  Well, not yet.  Maybe.”

 - And you can get this on any phone?

“No, just the one.  Maybe some others later.”

 - Well, I suppose it’s all good practice for you but I can’t see you making any money from it.

Now Facebook has bought Instagram.  That’s not surprising in itself.  These things happen all the time.  What is surprising is that they paid roughly one billion dollars for it.  And this is for a service that according to its own FAQ has no specific plans for monetising what it does. 

Paying that kind of money for that kind of service has led many to make comparisons with the dot-com crash at the turn of the century and News Corp’s disastrous takeover of MySpace.  Obviously for the sale to have happened, two sets of people would have to have thought two sets of things.  Instagram would have to think that they make more money out of their product this way than by any other way (seems like a bit of a no-brainer), and Facebook would have to think that they’re going to make more than a billion dollars from the acquisition.  I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not completely insane.  It’s possibly a better investment than Google buying YouTube for 1.65 billion dollars in 2006.  YouTube is massively popular – to the extent of being the world’s second most used search provider after Google itself – but as Slate reported in 2009, it bleeds money due to phenomenal bandwidth costs.

Of course, this is all private money going on private things, but just consider this the next time you think too much money is spent on the space program.  Mark Zuckerberg just spent a billion dollars on a service that makes photos look old and crappy. 

And just by coincidence, the second payout in the CSIRO Wi-Fi patent case was reported last week.  Between the two payouts, the CSIRO gets roughly 425 million dollars, or less than half the purchase price of Instagram.  Think that through for a moment.  International readers should also note that CSIRO stands for Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – Australia’s national science agency.  That’s right teabaggers, you got your Wi-Fi from socialism!

I’ve got nothing against Instagram per se.  I’ve used it and some other similar apps.  It’s fun to play around with the filters and I follow some people on Twitter who create some really beautiful pictures with it.  However, the ubiquity of the app has begun to annoy me.

At the risk of overthinking things, the tone of a picture or film always gives clues to when the picture was taken.  I remember when colour film of 1930s nazi Germany was discovered.  It looked literally unreal because to those of us who weren’t there at the time, anything before about 1956 was in black and white.  That’s why Spielberg shot Schindler’s List in black and white.  It wasn’t to be artistic, it was to be realistic because every picture we have of the real concentration camps is in black and white, so to film it in true colour would not have been as convincing.  Colour didn’t come in large quantities until the 50s, so the colour footage of pre-war Germany initially looks like it’s from the 50s.  Television is the same.  There’s a particular look to videotape from the 60s and 70s.  You don’t have to be a photographic expert to get a rough idea of when a photo was taken just from the colour and saturation.   Now with Instagram and dozens of copycat services, that’s being muddied.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are teenagers who have looked at their grandparents’ wedding photos and just assumed they had Instagram.

How the spire fire might have looked
if it had happened in 1977
It wouldn’t be such a problem if the service were just used for being creative, but its ubiquity has meant that increasingly, photos of record are being Instagrammed.  When the spire of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne caught fire from new year’s eve fireworks, one of the first pictures was posted on Twitter and picked up by both major newspapers’ websites, but it was bloody Instagram!  Photo filters should never be used for something like that.  Then just a few days later, there was five minutes of slight interest when it was announced that Barack Obama had joined Instagram.  There’s no doubting that Obama is the first social media president, but this is too much.  Fair enough that he posts announcements online and does his weekly address on YouTube, but it’s undignified for a national leader to post photos taken through the “toaster” filter. 

There was also a big deal made around the time of Obama’s inauguration that he was the first president to have his official portrait taken with a digital camera.  It was a complete non-story – that was a historical inevitability.  What worries me is that if his official portrait were taken this year, it might look more like this.

And that could cause future scholars to think, “I thought Obama was elected in 2008, not 1968.”
Or even worse, they might look at photos from the 20th century and wonder what Instagram filter they were taken with because we’ve confused the visual dating methods so much.


  1. Excellent post Bill. It’s a fascinating topic and yes, that shot of Obama does look very 1968.

    Reminds me of the difference between realism and verisimilitude in the cinema – in The Wizard of Oz, Kansas is realized in realistic (but not verisimilitudinous) black and white while the fantasy world of Oz is in colour, (well, Technicolour anyway) as is the real world.

    And you've got an Andy Warhol thing going with those 4 self-portraits.

  2. Thank you. I just put Obama's official portrait through a standard instagram filter.