Facebook has been making loads of press lately – with the billion-dollar purchase of Instagram and an IPO that many are calling a failure. (NASDAQ is widely expected to start compensating brokers).
Amid all this chaos, the company released Facebook Camera. Wait, what? Why would Facebook create a camera app? A camera utility, the app comes complete with a feed, photo filters, and batch uploading to the Timeline. But why would Facebook do this when it has Instagram? The answer is multi-fold, and not as foolish as it might seem.
First, Facebook was obviously already in the process of making the app, so there was no sense in halting the launch – it might as well launch it and see what it does.
More importantly, Facebook never wanted to have another company dominate the photo side of social, which Instagram was starting to do.
So what were Facebook's options? One option was that it could buy Instagram and immediately absorb it into Facebook. But the company would lose a ton of the Instagram audience immediately. Pretty much everyone on Instagram is also on Facebook, so if they wanted to just use Facebook photos, they'd have already done it.
What people liked most about Instagram was its sole purpose, which is a big deal, but might not seem like it. See, Facebook is huge. There are too many things to do in the platform – it's distracting. Plus, users have so many friends on Facebook that the good stuff, like photos, can get lost. Instagram solved all that. There was even a bit of a “start over” effect, similar to what Path is enjoying now – where users could rebuild their network, smaller and more focused on the content. Still, the real “Ah-ha!” with Instagram was that it was mobile – and mobile done very well. Facebook always struggled with that.
The other option for Facebook was to do what it did: buy Instagram so it can control it, then make its own app to “compete.” This is the best of both worlds. You can bet that Instagram won't beat Facebook's Camera app to the punch on new and exciting features. Suddenly this new Camera app will get better and better, and at a much faster clip than Instagram. People will start to realize that they can have a better experience with Facebook Camera than with Instagram because the app itself is better and because more of the connections they care about are there.
It's very likely that as adoption rises, the Camera app will start motivating people to pare down their Facebook friends. During a recent weekend, I took mine from just over 500 friends to under 400, simply because I wanted to start using Facebook Camera more and needed a smaller network to be comfortable enough sharing an array of photos that includes personal moments with my family.
This is an interesting point to ponder for a moment – the quiet movement toward smaller, more intimate networks. As both marketers and users, we've tended to view Facebook as a social behemoth, and the sort of “center” of our social networks. Yet, if you follow Dunbar's number, then we can really only have meaningful, sustainable social relationships with about 150 people. The average Facebook user has around 250. It's this notion that's driving platforms like Path, a mobile-only social network, to limit the number of friends any person can have.
Platforms like Instagram and Path also respect the need to minimize features, keeping interactions uncomplicated and even more personal. For Path, the user experience is driven by simplicity – a marked difference from Facebook. It's a cue the company took in developing their Camera app. While it's tied to Facebook, the stand-alone nature of the app lets the company focus on a straightforward, easy-to-use and functional platform.
I'll close with one final point: Instagram was never going to be for “regular people.” For instance, my mom would never use Instagram. Yet she's on Facebook and is very likely to use its Camera app. Facebook came to the huge realization that everyday people will use a stand-alone camera app. Now, they will completely and absolutely own the mobile picture market with apps that attract all demographics and categories of users, with the ability to pull it more and more into their framework. Brilliant.
Jeff Hilimire is president and chief digital officer at Engauge, a full-service marketing agency.