Dear Facebook: Here’s How to Not Screw Up Instagram

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Harry McCracken /

First, an important disclaimer: I’m not predicting that Facebook is going to ruin Instagram, the wonderful photo-sharing service for smartphones which it is acquiring.

True, when I think of startups Facebook has acquired, I think of FriendFeed (which it let slip into limbo) and Gowalla (which it shuttered). But Instagram, unlike FriendFeed and Gowalla, is already an enormous hit. And Facebook is spending $1 billion on it because Mark Zuckberberg and company think it’s going to get even more popular. They’re not dummies, and they’re not going to willfully neglect or destroy their new plaything.

(MORE INSTAGRAM: my colleague Jared Newman has five lingering questions about the Facebook acquisition.)

Still, if you love Instagram as much as I do — and even if you’re willing to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, as I am — it’s not unreasonable to feel nervous about the acquisition. There aren’t all that many examples of scrappy startups being bought out by big companies and then continuing to be at least as good as they would have been on their own. (One shining success story, which many folks pointed out to me over on Twitter, is Google’s purchase of YouTube.)

(MORE: Facebook to Buy Instagram: 5 Lingering Questions)

Instagram is so good in part because it’s so different from Facebook; I want to see it stay true to its own existing personality rather than start to reflect the world according to Mark Zuckerberg.¬†And if anyone at Facebook or Instagram is listening, I just happen to have a few helpful pieces of advice:

  • Keep Instagram profoundly simple. Facebook is good because there’s so much you can do there; Instagram is good because there’s almost nothing to it. I assume that a Facebook-owned Instagram will (I hate this word) iterate more quickly and more ambitiously than standalone Instagram has done. But I hope that “minimalist” never stops being a word that’s appropriate to describe it. We’ll know it’s been officially ruined if it’s possible to write Instagram for Dummies.
  • Don’t confuse it with Facebook photos. I get that photo sharing is an essential part of Facebook, and that Facebook can benefit from Instagram’s expertise at making photo sharing irresistibly easy on mobile devices. But Facebook photo sharing is about friends, family and events — and, most often, photos that you want to share with people you already know. Instagram, much of the time, is about moments of universal appeal. It would be a mistake to make Instagram more like Facebook photos, or to make Facebook photos into an Instagram clone.
  • Avoid words. One of the most cool, charming, even inspiring things about Instagram is that the pictures do almost all the talking. You don’t need to have a language in common with other members to enjoy their pictures, making it a remarkably universal social network.
  • Don’t impose identity. Facebook is all about real people mapping out their real relationships. On Instagram, members who matter have one thing in common: they’re really good at taking memorable photos. That’s all I know about many of my favorite Instagrammers, and I like it that way.
  • Let people live inside their own networks. Instagram resembles Twitter more than it does Facebook. One of the best things about Twitter is every user gets to choose who’s worth following, and can blissfully ignore 99.9999999% of Twitter users and tweets. (At least for the most part.) Facebook presumably wants Instagram to end up with far more users than it has now, and that’s fine — as long as any particular member’s feed still feels like a cozy little neighborhood rather than an overcrowded metropolis full of random strangers.
  • Stay away from controversy. Facebook — which, I should re-emphasize, I like — has a deep-seated willingness to tick off some people in pursuit of its overarching goals. Instagram, by contrast, is tranquil and melodrama-free. If it starts to make a meaningful number of people unhappy, for any reason, it’ll have lost its reason for being.

I cheerfully admit that all of the above points are designed to keep Instagram interesting to me. Like all social networks, it’s very different things to different people, and it’s possible that there are such people as Instagram members, or prospective Instagram members, who wish that the service was more like Facebook, or that it was bursting at the seams with bells and whistles.

So here’s a slightly less self-serving request: Facebook, whatever you do, please make sure that Instagram stays quirky and lovable. That’s what makes it Instagram; if you manage to retain it, Instagram will still be Instagram no matter what else changes.

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