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I didn't? Okay. Well, it's safe to say I am obsessed with this app and its precious, awesome community. In next to no time, all my base are belong to ...

Mike and Kevin are now describing Instagram as:

A storytelling service and a new entertainment service 

I can see what they mean, but I'm not so sure I'd call it "entertainment".

I think they're using that word because we're all comfortable with what it means - you know, in a way that we're not so comfortable with "remote viewing", "mind-streaming" or "digitally mediated extra-sensory perception". We may simply not have the words yet to describe the job that Instagram-like services will play in our lives in the future.  

Of course, people said some of these things about Twitter - and in some ways Twitter is a bit like ESP. But Twitter is fundamentally a messaging platform. The messages are predominantly in text and shared links. Sure, you can share links to images like Twitpic and YFrog et al but it's not the same as Instagram which seems more like second sight to me: predominantly visual, more like seeing the world through someone else's eyes, more like a super-power.

There are some people who argue that Instagram is a "single purpose app" that does nothing significantly more than we could already do using pre-existing tools. Flickr die-hards point out that we've been able to share and stream using their service - yes, even on mobile phones - for years.


I haven't been to Flickr or uploaded a single photo to that service (a service I actually pay for...) since I fell in love with Instagram - and that's because compared to Instagram it's horribly difficult, clunky and desk-bound. Writing this has reminded me that I need to cancel my subscription.  

Since Yahoo bought Flickr, I've had a nightmare with passwords - I'm not even sure I can get in. I've never used a Flickr mobile service or app that's as mindlessly simple as Instagram, and despite being a member of Flickr since February 2005 I still only have 67 friends using the service. 

By contrast, Instagram's greatest success is its pared down super-simplicity.

You see something, you whip out your iPhone. You take a shot and then you send it directly to someone else's brain. It's over in seconds (most of the time). It's sharing at the speed of thought, almost. Flickr isn't like that.

In fact, I think Instagram makes it easier and quicker than it's ever been to think of an image and send it into someone else's brain.

This is a huge deal, since we are primarily visual creatures. 

We think in pictures, not text and messages. Our brains function by "imagining" and "visualizing" things: people, situations, places you'll never go to, cake.

This is true even when our eyes no longer work. Being able to share images is central to storytelling, dreaming, communication, love, cake - pretty much all of human existence. Words and languages are just a shorthand way to do this, useful ways of working around technology that hasn't been able to support images as human societies and cultures have grown in scale. 

I'm not suggesting that Instagram-like services will replace writing. I'm simply trying to explain the significance of being able to make and share images seamlessly, quickly, wherever and whenever we please.  

I say images, because I think we're talking about something more than photos.

This is why we see a proliferation of simple processing and image editing tools around Instagram. The filters aren't a big deal to me for their own sake, but they do lend an emotional weight to images and are just one example of a wide set of tools that make up Instagram's rapidly growing storytelling ecosystem. 

I currently use:

  • Emoji - Emoji is Japanese for pictograph, and these emoticon-like images are basically an additional foreign language set that you can add to your iPhone. Then you can have all sort of hilarious fun... 

  • Labelbox - Take photos and then stick labels on them, including this cool DYMO type label. By the way, Labelbox labels will allow you to put Emoji characters into them (btw - why have DYMO not created an iPhone app??) 

  • TiltShiftGen - This is you can do all those cool miniature looking shots, or at least it was before Instagram included a Tilt Shift tool in their latest release. I still like the original because of the absurd amounts of colour saturation and vignetting it'll let you do. Oh yeah, and the round blur tool. And the contrast. Get it. Use it way too much. You'll never get bored. 

  • Hipstamatic - I've been using this a little more over the last week, simply for the far greater richness it gives to images. So many filters, lenses and films... so little time.

  • ColorSplash - Lets you converting shots to black and white, while highlighting areas to keep in colour. Also gives you some control over the saturation and contrast.  

  • Diptic - Allows you to create images from multiple photos in lots of types of grids, rows and columns.

  • HollerGram - Okay, hands up, we made this one and it only works on an iPad but it's great for making an image out of text and can then be brought into Instagram and processed there or through any of the above. Made a fab Mother's Day card this weekend - well, my Mum thinks so...

Each of these adds a little nuance or control to the digitally mediated visual imagination we can share through Instagram. I love the way that Instagram seems to be democratising image manipulation by making it cheap (most of these are either free, or around £0.49/$0.99, compared to hundreds of pounds for Photoshop), but also by breaking it into tiny manageable components called apps. 

Finally, the ability to do all of the above within a social context provides a wonderfully natural new way to conceptualise a social network. We are not merely visual creatures, but highly social ones as well. I definitely feel closer to the people I know on Instagram than any other social/community tool, app or service I have ever used. It's true that this spills across other social tools like Twitter - I use them together - but it's stronger and more natural and rewarding than Facebook or Twitter alone. I am finding more common ground with Instagram.

Instagram CEO Mike Krieger describes it like this:

Seeing the world through other people's eyes

That's a great soundbite, but it's actually a pretty profound new super-power. I don't think we've seen anything yet in terms of the way people are going to start using Instagram.

If you're thinking about what the future of  shared online experiences might be then it's worth investing the full 17.5 minutes in watching the video below. Not that it will tell you exactly what the future will be like, but there are definitely some interesting clues in Instagram. I've embedded it below.

Tim Malbon

Tim Malbon

Tim founded influential digital product design company Made by Many in 2007. He’s a leading voice in the emerging practice area of product design and innovation, customer experience and business strategy. He’s the Webby Awards UK Ambassador and a member of the IADAS, and was recently named by Creative Review as one of the 50 Creative Leaders "driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large."