Pondering Kevin Systrom's idea of Instagram as a way of "tuning into any place on Earth" 

A place on Earth, via Instagram

What is Instagram, actually? Some people focus on the software itself, primarily the filters that allow users to change the contrast and color of their photos. Then, there are people like Alexis who think Instagram is about the social network that formed around the photo tools. But what about Kevin Systrom, the company's founder? He has (had?) a vision for the company that wasn't actually centered on the relationship between people, but between people and places. He thought of the future of Instagram as allowing you to "tun[e] into any place on Earth."

Systrom revealed that vision in an interview with Digg founder Kevin Rose that was published on Rose's Foundation series earlier this year. It's worth looking at a bit more of the exchange to see what he's talking about.

Here's the video, cued to the exchange: 

And here's the transcript:

Kevin Rose: "What's the grand vision that's bigger than filters and just sharing simple photos with friends?"

Systrom: "I think you alluded to it earlier when you said you could explore the world. Imagine a service that collects all of the visual data that gets produced all around the world so you can tune in to anyplace on earth to see exactly what's happening, whether that is a friend's birthday party that you're missing or a wedding happening that you didn't go to or a riot breaking out overseas. Or something as personal as a baby's first steps. 

These are all moments that are happening around the world and that we capture with our cameras, right, and that is visual  media that before was sitting on someone's camera or phone and just sitting there. What happens in the world when you take all that data and combine it in a network?

Rose: Whether they know each other or not.

S: Whether they know each other or not.

Rose: I was at the 49ers football game the other night and there were probably a couple thousand people taking Instagram photos with no common tag, but 
you have the timestamp, you have the GPS coordinates locked in the photo. You could bundle those together to make some way to browse through those?

S: Right, so imagine being able to tune-in to anything on Earth? Whenever it happens. 

R: So, tune-in sounds like video?

S: It could be video in the future, but that's why I describe this as visual media. At the end of the day it is about beautiful imagery.  But it's really more about useful imagery. Useful can mean beautiful or entertaining. And that's what it's really about. How do you take all the visual data from around the world and bring it to one place and what do you make of that? Is it your way to get news now? Is it your way to share things with friends? Is it your way to experience events you wouldn't have otherwise?  For example, I follow Banana Republic and Burberry... It's a new way of shopping. So all of a sudden you're seeing things and products coming by. Audi, I get to follow Audi's cars as they get launched at car shows. It's not simply about a latte and some art.  It's more than that because I can experience things from all different vantage points. And that's why I think what we're doing is so impactful in the long run. It is a universal medium that allows you to explore the world and that is something that the world has been asking for for a long time.

Okay. Done. I like it. There are already numerous ways to do something sort of like "tuning into anything on Earth." Twitter allows users to look at tweets based on search terms or hashtags or filter by location. Flickr allows similar filtering with search, tags and location, plus it allows filtering photo by camera type or for certain types of image rights, but it is more like a library than a radio station, lacking the instant nature that a type of "tuning-in" would provide.

As far as providing instant information goes, there's not much wrong with the experience on Twitter. Personally, I'm a huge fan and it has proven to be a valuable tool during recent protests and social movements. Currently we can use Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Instagram, etc. to follow official accounts that are run by places with which we'd like to "tune-in," like say, the National Parks Service, Madison Square Garden, and some restaurants, but the updates and photos you'd see shared through those accounts would be passing through the human filters at these organizations. I could also search for hashtags like #Yosemite, #NYKnicks, or whatever to see photos that have been tagged as having to do with those terms, but the results can be unreliable -- and most people don't always think to use hashtags to categorize their photos. Using location data and timestamps the way Rose and Systrom discuss was the killer idea that Color and maybe even Facebook were already going for.

But the images that are coming out of Instagram have an immediacy and a quality that is better than anything I see on Facebook or other Twitter photo sharing tools. When Systrom asks us to imagine tuning into anywhere on Earth, I think of looking up Yosemite park to see if there's snow on the ground today. Or Madison Square Garden to check out all the concert and basketball photos that have been shared. I imagine using Instagram to look up a restaurant I'm going to visit to see what food photos have been shared from that location in the past few days. Maybe I'll be tempted to order something different because it looks so good. Rather than relying on what the official handlers of these locations' social media accounts want to share, I'd be able to tune in to the users' experience of them -- to see the most recent visual media from those locations at this very moment, as shared by people who are motivated by little else save the act of sharing itself.  

What I'm wondering now is whether Facebook bought Instagram because of this far-sighted vision for what Instagram could become and are planning to help support the existing Instagram team to continue building towards this goal or whether Zuckerberg was more interested in simply eliminating a competitor. Another possibility is the one that I focused on in a post today on TreeHugger, which built upon Om Malik's observation that Facebook was looking to acquire the soul and emotion Instagram has allowed users to create with their photos. There's definite overlap already in this Future Instagram and the direction Facebook was already heading; but now Instagram's future depends on how Zuckerberg and his team are thinking about the service and how they end up incorporating it into the Facebook universe.

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