How Facebook Could Ruin Instagram

Instagram is the only social network that doesn't try to make your personal photos go viral. Can that survive integrating with Facebook?

Facebook's purchase of Instagram is old news, but it didn't become official until last week — which means Zuckerberg & co. are now free to enact any plans they may have for the once-scrappy photo-sharing platform.

No one knows what those plans might be, but there's been no shortage of speculation on the topic — and there's a lot to be optimistic about. Instagram gets a website! Facebook gets a better camera! What's not to like?

But there's at least one problem no one's talking about. Instagram and Facebook approach sharing in very different ways: one is only modestly social, while the other is virulently so, tending to share posts as widely as possible, as often as possible. It's hard to fit them together without something breaking — and however the implementation plays out, Instagram's days as a small-scale, or at least small-feeling, social network are over.

An Instagram that never made it to Facebook.

Think of the footprint of a Facebook photo. It goes through your friends' newsfeeds once when it's posted, again when it's tagged, and again if anyone leaves a comment. The flow is set up to let your posts reach as many people as possible. It's also easy to see everything a person has posted in the last year, so they last a long time. That's the point of the Timeline layout; all you have to do is scroll. This is part of why Facebook is such a pageview machine. There's always more stuff, and more people.

Instagram takes the opposite approach, keeping its footprint as small as possible. It's inconvenient to navigate to a specific person's profile (either hope they come up in your feed or go to your "following" list and start scrolling), and once you're there, the split between "graph" and "list" modes forces you to choose between skimming thumbnails and scrolling through the most recent pics one at a time. There's no website to help you, which makes it hard to imagine an HR manager poking through your history. Most of all, there's no Share button. Distributing a cool Instagram you found is purposefully awkward, which means that unless you're Rihanna (or more recently, Russell Westbrook), there's no reason to think any picture will reach more than a few dozen friends. Once a picture is more than a few months old, it's practically invisible.

As a result, Instagram feels (felt?) like a safe place for gently embarassing photos — the drunken hug, the karaoke night, and anything else you might not want your grandmother to see. That's a rare feeling to have in social media. In a space devoted to public living, Instagram feels private. If that doesn't sound impressive to you, think about how long Google+ has spent trying to occupy that niche. As Instagram gets folded into the We Live In Public ethos of Facebook, it's likely to be the first thing that goes.

You might not want this one on your Facebook page.

Facebook has been silent on their plans so far, and there's still a possibility that they'll leave Instagram untouched, a strategic bargaining chip along the lines of what Flickr has been under Yahoo!. But even the mildest integration would mean giving Instagram a web presence on Facebook — and that will mean the end of the small-scale sharing that makes Instagram so appealing.

Suddenly, the shoebox full of polaroids looks like a pretty good system.