Instagram, Hipstamatic, Path, the list goes on and on. Photo taking, editing and sharing apps are gaining momentum right now as more and more people use quick photos to communicate with their friends and family. Years after Flickr and Facebook reinvented the photo as a shared, social object, these new apps are transforming how we communicate, from short text-based status updates to candid, interesting photos. Some people are wondering why these photo sharing apps are so en vogue right now, but I think the answer is pretty simple – people want more than text to express themselves. As the on-board cell phone camera technology has improved pictures have become a more viable and attractive way for people to express themselves online. With our new cameras and better upload ability photos have become the new love letter for the web.
We’ve talked about the “statusphere” since the dawn of Twitter. Short text bursts were our our only option if we wanted to participate in the social web. But they were lacking. Sometimes, words just don’t do it. Text is great for relaying information, facts, quotes, etc. but photos are a much more emotional. They not only serve an information need, they serve an emotional and phatic need as well. These facets are often missing in text form, or if they’re there, aren’t nearly as profound or effective.
So now, instead of typing what we’re doing, we’re sharing what we’re doing visually with these apps. Our phatic expressions previously text-based, are being replaced, and in a hurry. The rush to join Instagram and the rest of the photo sharing/taking apps is a direct response to this emotional void that photos fill that text just can’t touch.
For example, I share photos with my girlfriend throughout the day. We snap pictures of what we’re doing, our kids, our workspaces, our shopping carts, our friends, and more. These aren’t award winners and they won’t end up on the mantle; but they’re a powerful way to say “I’m thinking of you. I wish you were here. I love you.” A picture of my son coloring is far more emotionally engaging than a text message that says “we’re coloring,” and that is what makes the photo sharing so appealing to us as users.
But there’s another thing going on here. Because people could MMS well before Instagram came along and they could share on Flickr and BBS’s long before that. And I think the secret ingredient is the filters that come on these apps. Because when you take a photo you’re documenting an event; but when you add a filter to the photo you’re adding a mood and personality to the moment. You’re marking it for posterity. You’re able to add what the camera can’t see. You’re making each picture special. And that last step is what makes sharing so interesting. In some way, you’re able to idealize the moment, and that makes sharing far more interesting for both the sharer and the recipients. It isn’t just cold reality captured by an unforgiving, inhuman lens. Rather, it’s the scene as it appeared in your mind (to some reasonable approximation anyway,) and you’re able, in some small way, to share your life the way you see it.
And people love this. Because it’s their editorial touch on the reality captured by the camera. And it lets them put their voice into the picture. The picture and it’s alterations say as much about the person as anything else they share.
This ability to alter the mundane into something special resonates with users again and again and again. We see this behavior and rapid adoption whenever a company can add an extra layer of meaning on top of an everyday item. For example, it’s not Starbucks coffee, but what the coffee and logo say about the drinker and how it makes that person feel. It’s the design of the Mac and the aluminum casing and what that says about the person holding the laptop.
And now these photos are capturing and conveying that same idea. It’s not the photo necessarily, its presenting the moment the way we choose to represent it, and what that says about us and who we are and the life we choose to lead. The photos are love letters to the people we love and care about and to ourselves. They make the mundane significant and add importance to what we experience, big and small.
Idealizing these moments is what makes these photos the love letters of our time, and what makes these apps so popular.
There are important ramifications for this change in behavior from a business and social media strategy standpoint as well. As more people share and engage around photos brands will have to find a way to participate in this preferred way of sharing content online. The Daily Beast reported that photos and videos get more interaction on Facebook than text updates. Images and videos get more comments and likes than text updates (on average,) which puts them in more Top News streams and in front of the customers they’re trying to reach. How can brands adapt to this? By sharing more photos and video of course – photos with an emotional appeal that resonates with their customer base.
It goes beyond just social sharing though, and has much broader implications for product design and development. How do you let your customers express themselves in a way that resonates with them, that helps them depict an ideal/romanticized version of their world? How do you give customers lightweight ways that they can take the raw product and add their idealized filter to it to make it truly one-of-a-kind, truly theirs? How can you help your customers portray not just their reality, but the reality in their mind’s eye?
Increasingly we are able to share more about our lives via text, photo and video. And increasingly we can craft and present our lives to be displayed perhaps not as they are in the harsh light of objective reality; but in the idealized vision of our own emotional lens. And products, like Path, like Instagram, that give us the ability to capture that state and to share with our loved ones and the world that our life is filled with interest and wonder and love are the ones that will continue to succeed in the social space. They say photos are worth a thousand words. In an age when people proclaim that SMS, Twitter and status updates are killing our language, these photos show that expressing our love to those we connect with and care about is healthier than ever.