Instagram, Path and Pilot Fish by Dan Weingrod

There’s been a lot of chatter about an impending clash between Instagram and Path, two social apps that on the face of it are very similar. Both have recently gotten big cash infusions, with Path even spurning a takeover offer from Google. Both are based on a similar core concept of using images or video instead of text to connect with and build your network. But that’s where the similarities end. Path offers a very compelling proposition of creating your own “unsocial” private network limited to 50 friends.  Instagram, however,  seems to be growing very rapidly while Path appears to be languishing by the sidelines. For me the reasons this lies in Instagram's approach to  application scope and simplicity of execution.  Instagram decided to be a pilot fish instead of a shark.

When I first downloaded Instagram I was almost immediately taken by its frictionless, (btw: can we think of a better word for ease of use that doesn’t feel like a sexual aid?), usability and its connectivity. At first blush it seemed like a glorified version of Hipstamatic, but from the moment you took a photo the differences were apparent. First it was clear that Instagram wouldn’t charge for additional filters like Hipstamatic did. Even better Instagram features a seamless workflow which prizes simplicity of objective over complexity of connection. Just take the photo, filter it and post it. When you post you can add a title, but geo-location is optional and finally with a flick of the finger you can choose to upload directly to twitter, Facebook, flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.

Path on the other hand was fraught with problems for me from the beginning. Maybe it was the anticipation of hearing about it as another in the recent line of “ Facebook killers”, maybe it was its model of a limited network or maybe it was the knowledge that Path was sitting in a semi-public beta for a long time. So when I discovered that Path had gone public I jumped in right away, only to come to a screeching, full stop.

The stop had nothing to do with the idea or concept, which had been fully described to me during the sign-on process. It happened when I had to select 3 people with which to start my own personal Path network. That’s when I froze. I'd recently gone through trying to get friends to join me on the Diaspora beta, to no avail. I’d eagerly awaited the launch of Rockmelt, and forgot it immediately. So now I was being asked to inflict yet another new thing on my friends. Not only that, I was being asked to make a very conscious selection of my BFF’s. Who would I invite, what would be my selection criteria, what if they rejected me.  It was just too hard, so I stopped.

By contrast, My Instagram experiences just kept on growing.  A major revelation was discovering the feed and realizing that I didn’t need announce my photos on twitter or Posterous. This was a big revelation in and of itself, most importantly in the lo-fi way that Instagram approached it. There was no “application obligation” as Cath Richardson has so aptly put it. No pinging me when a new photo was posted, no modal window popping up for random likes or comments and no urgency to respond right now. Instead it became the simple equivalent of leafing through an album of found images from friends and acquaintances on my own time and pace. Of course the social factors of popularity and commenting are present with commenting and liking, but they feel much less critical to my participation. And that’s a good thing.

So where do pilot fish fit in?  Pilot fish are small carnivorous fish that accompany all manner of sharks while munching on parasites and leftovers. Their relationship with sharks is a mutualist one; the pilot fish gain protection from predators, the shark gains freedom from parasites. I thought about this interaction after I watched this interview with Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s founder about the audacious Pivot they made that likely insured Instagram’s success. Originally Instagram was part of an App called Burbn which included a great deal of features around check-ins, geo location and active social connections. Burbn had a great and dedicated alpha group that loved the product and seemed to be heading in a great direction. But then, in a sudden decision Systrom and his partner decided to narrow the entire application down to the photo sharing feature of Burbn which became Instagram. The key factor in the pivot was the long, shark like shadow of Facebook getting into “Places” . It forced the Instagram team to focus on something that they were very passionate about, photography, and to end up with a core product that came out of the box lean, mean and ready to engage.

It also meant a product that interacts easily and adds value to the other, bigger, sharks swimming in the social ocean. Instagram has become really useful for me because it interacts with these sharks in a mutually beneficial way for me. With twitter or Facebook to be more public, with Flickr for archiving and with Posterous for more blog-ish activity. Simultaneously, it has also created a new and more private network that feels a lot more like what I had envisioned Path would be. Did Instagram plan to be a pilot fish? Maybe not at the outset, but by understanding that there were more ways to thrive in the ocean than being the big fish it ended up creating a much richer and mutually beneficial environment.