Facebook's Surprisingly Humble, $1 Billion Acquisition of Instagram

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Mark Zuckerberg has good news for Facebook users -- and maybe even for Instagrammers.

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Facebook just bought Instagram for about $1 billion in cash and Facebook shares.

Whoa.

That's a big deal in Silicon Valley both because Instagram has been one of the hottest social networks of the last few years and because Facebook has never made an acquisition of a company this large. And if you believe Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, they may never make another purchase like this again.

"This is an important milestone for Facebook because it's the first time we've ever acquired a product and company with so many users," Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook, of course. "We don't plan on doing many more of these, if any at all. But providing the best photo sharing experience is one reason why so many people love Facebook and we knew it would be worth bringing these two companies together."

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If you're a Facebook user, you should be ecstatic. One assumes that Instagram's vaunted photo filters, which make everything look a little cooler, will make their way into Facebook's photo tools and mobile app.
 
If you're an Instagram user, you may be wary. First, Instagram is a relatively closed network that operates very differently from Facebook. Sure, you can link it to Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter to publicly post photos, but you can also keep Instagram photos  off the open web. That closedness allows me to post more intimate looks into my life than I might feel comfortable with on other platforms. Second, any time one big company acquires a smaller one, it's natural to worry that Facebook would absorb the Instagram tools and then shut the actual service down.

But, based on Zuckerberg's post, I don't think Instagrammers have to worry. At least not yet. His note about the acquisition is shockingly humble and seems designed to assure users that Facebook is not plotting to close down Instagram.

We believe these are different experiences that complement each other. But in order to do this well, we need to be mindful about keeping and building on Instagram's strengths and features rather than just trying to integrate everything into Facebook.

That's why we're committed to building and growing Instagram independently. Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.

We think the fact that Instagram is connected to other services beyond Facebook is an important part of the experience. We plan on keeping features like the ability to post to other social networks, the ability to not share your Instagrams on Facebook if you want, and the ability to have followers and follow people separately from your friends on Facebook.

I'm going to float an idea about why Zuckerberg strikes, what seems to me, the perfect tone. I think Facebook and Zuckerberg really do "get social." I bet he understands that social networks have to develop organically and that the actual software itself is a tiny piece of the overall social network proposition. What really makes Instagram (and Facebook) work is the time that people have invested tuning their connections based on what they do on these services. To ram a social network that users built doing one thing into a different social network built just doesn't work.

It's smarter, in other words, to figure out why Instagram's users built their networks on the service rather than try to dump those users into Facebook.

All that means is that Zuckerberg appears to be coming to the Instagram acquisition not as conqueror, but as student.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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