Facebook creative culture questioned as Instagram founders exit

In a move which should have Instagrammers all around the world worried, co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger have decided to take their leave from the popular social media platform.

With a short and sweet statement, Systrom has announced he and Krieger would be leaving the company they founded in 2010 to take a break and find themselves. While it might sound like the pair are readying their backpacks for a couple of months sipping beers and relaxing in hammocks, the wording does not suggest the Facebook business is in a particularly healthy state.

“We’re now ready for our next chapter,” wrote Systrom. “We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do.”

This of course might mean nothing in particular, though it does seem to suggest the pair need to move elsewhere to flex their creative muscles. Is Systrom indirectly accusing Facebook and its legions of employees of lacking creativity and the absence of an environment to experiment with new ideas?

Having launched in 2010, the app proved to be an instant hit collecting one million users within the first two months. By the end of the first year, 10 million accounts had been created, a number which increased to over 800 million by the end of 2017. The platform was acquired in by Facebook in April 2012 for $31 billion in cash and stock, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg announcing in the most recent earnings call the one billion user mark had been passed. The last couple of quarters have seen commercial activity on the platform increase notably.

While those who own such platforms are perfectly entitled to monetize their ideas, Instagram has been protected from the over-commercialised approach which has plagued the Facebook platform and destroyed the user experience. A balance has to be struck between advertising and maintaining a platform which entertains and engages users. The Facebook platform risks running the wrong direction.

In retaining the services of the two co-founders, perhaps this was the protection the platform needed from money-hungry Zuckerberg. With these two exiting the business what will become of the Instagram platform?

The Facebook platform has been suffering recently. While it is certainly a money making machine, this drive towards profitability has seemingly impacted user experience and the appeal of the platform. User growth has been slowing, with some questioning whether the glass ceiling is fast approaching, though there does seem to be a lack of creative spark in the platform. New features have been remarkably similar (some might suggest identical) to that of competitors, suggesting there is more of a focus on sweating assets for profitability as opposed to creating a platform which is attractive and engaging for users.

Research also supports the premise competitors are doing better at engaging younger audiences than Facebook. The Pew Research Centre has suggested only 51% of US teens aged 13-17 use Facebook today, with only 10% listing it as their preferred social media platform, compared to Instagram (72% use), Snapchat (69%) and YouTube (85%). In the Center’s 2014-2015 survey of teen social media use, 71% of teens reported being Facebook users, while 52% said they had an Instagram account and 41% for Snapchat.

With Systrom and Krieger leaving the business, citing a search for creativity as the reason, the assumption of a lack of creativity is being reinforced. The big question which remains is what is in store for Instagram?

With one billion accounts, low-advertising penetration in comparison to other platforms and a focus on younger demographics, this would certainly be an attractive proposition for any advertisers. The team has also done a much better job of capitalising on the video trend than parent-company Facebook, offering more opportunity to engage the motion-hungry users.

As co-founders, Systrom and Krieger would have certainly been influential on the development of the platform, though how much of the commercial tides were the pair holding back? Once replacements have been lined-up we’ll have a better idea as to whether this is a transition from Instagram 1.0 to Instagrabcash 2.0. We suspect Zuckerberg and the rest of the Facebook executives will be eyeing up Instagram to bolster year-on-year advertising numbers.

Only time will tell whether Zuckerberg will be able to over-commercialise this platform and destroy customer experience once again, but Systrom’s indirect critique of the environment does not suggest the best of scenarios.

YouTube strikes back in increasingly important mobile video battle

No sooner does Instagram make its mobile video move than YouTube and Snapchat counter-attack in an area of growing commercial significance to telcos too.

Facebook subsidiary Instagram launched IGTV yesterday in a bid to wrest back some of the initiative in a mobile video space largely dominated by YouTube. In hindsight the announcement may have been timed to steal some of YouTube’s thunder, because just a few hours later the Google-owned giant announced a bunch of initiatives designed to keep its ‘creators’ loyal.

It’s no coincidence that we’re getting so many online video-related announcements right now because we’re in the middle of VidCon – a big event devoted entirely to just that. Traditionally it has been a convention of YouTubers, i.e. people who devote much of their time to creating video content and sticking it up on YouTube. Since its acquisition by Viacom earlier this year it seems to have embraced the corporate world more closely and this is reflected in all these announcements.

Monetization is a critical issue when it comes to user-generated video as kids increasingly aspire to make a living that way. The most successful YouTubers make millions, but traffic doesn’t always map directly onto revenue, with YouTube reserving the right not to serve ads on content it thinks advertisers might not want to be associated with.

The result of this approach is that creators are increasingly finding their videos ‘demonetized’, with no prospect of traffic being converted into money. YouTube seems to be aware how alienating this process is to its creators and has belatedly moved to appease them with some new tools to help them pay the bills beyond taking a cut of ad revenue.

In a blog Neal Mohan, Chief Product Officer at YouTube, announced its creators are earning more money than ever from advertising, but conceded the need to create other revenue channels, building on the Super Chat service it introduced last year that enabled viewers of a live stream to pay money in order to make their comments more prominent.

So now we have Channel Memberships, a premium subscription service that offers special access to the creator for five dollars per month. YouTube has also partnered with a merchandise specialist to assist creators with flogging branded tat to their viewers. Lastly there is Premiers, which aims to turn a pre-recorded video into a live event, thus unlocking the potential of things like Super Chat.

 

All this stuff is as much a response to alternative revenue-generation mechanisms such as Patreon, which is an easy way for anyone to pledge small regular donations to someone they want to support, thus bypassing the advertising channel, as to Facebook. There’s also Amazon-owned Twitch, which live-streams games and allows viewers to pay for premium virtual tat such as emojis if that’s what floats their boat.

The other big player in mobile video is Snapchat, which has been offering portrait-aligned video suspiciously similar to the IGTV announcement for some time. With much less fanfare it has just announced its Shows video format, which was previously only available to corporate producers, has now been extended to regular creators.

The only other major social media platform we haven’t mentioned yet is Twitter, but BuzzFeed reckons mobile video has been a key reason for the recent turnaround in its fortunes. If you had bought Twitter stock in August of last year you would have tripled your money by now and, alongside a focus on news, a general rethink and a healthy dollop of luck, BuzzFeed puts that down to an aggressive push into premium live video.

A visit to your Twitter stream typically finds sponsored video clips interspersed within the usual bile, virtue-signalling and twitch hunts. These could be ads, news clips, sports coverage. “Video is really really important to us,” Matt Derella, Twitter’s head of revenue and content partnerships, told BuzzFeed. “It’s our largest format in terms of revenue.”

All this is directly relevant to the telecoms industry as video continues to put enormous strain on networks and operators increasingly look to content to boost their ARPUs and become less dependent on traditional contracts for their revenues. Internet companies are becoming increasingly reliant on mobile video for their business models, which could create a host of new opportunities for telcos able to move quickly enough to exploit them.

Facebook takes fight to YouTube on mobile with IGTV

Facebook subsidiary Instagram has launched a new app dedicated to long-form video on mobile devices that seems designed to compete with dominant incumbent YouTube.

If you want to publish video longer than a few minutes on the internet right now (outside of China) YouTube is by far the best place to get traffic and maybe even monetise your efforts. There are alternative specialist services, such as Vimeo, but they’re much smaller, and other social media platforms tend to be used for mini clips.

Instagram has traditionally been all about photos and while some producers, such as comedian Kyle Dunnigan, have adapted their video content to it, to date Instagram and Facebook have left the longer video market to their great competitor Google.

Not any more it seems. IGTV is a dedicated service within Instagram as well as a standalone app that increases the maximum length of uploaded videos from one minute to one hour. Additionally it displays the video in portrait (or vertical, as Instagram puts it), full-screen, while YouTube requires you to view full-screen video in landscape, thus needing to rotate your phone by 90 degrees. Oh, the first-world problems we have to endure.

“IGTV is different in a few ways,” said Kevin Systrom, Co-Founder & CEO of Instagram, in a blog that rather embarrassingly seems to feature a broken link to a video. “First, it’s built for how you actually use your phone, so videos are full screen and vertical. Also, unlike on Instagram, videos aren’t limited to one minute. Instead, each video can be up to an hour long.”

IGTV screens

This launch seems designed to address several important issues for Facebook. It has been agonizing over user engagement and seems to want people to use the main Facebook platform for ‘engaging with each other’ somehow, instead of just monging out at cat video compilations, so it seems to be hoping to ring-fence the video stuff on Instagram. But even this strategy seems to be confused, as we saw with the recent announcement of a tool apparently designed to limit the time spend on Instagram.

The bigger play seems to be to take on YouTube as the place for user-generated content. YouTube has been spending most of this year trying to alienate many of its producers by refusing to serve ads against their content, thus depriving them of the main means of being paid for their work. The market is desperate for a viable alternative and this could be it, so we imagine YouTube execs will be watching this situation very closely.

Having said that they don’t need to panic just yet, because right now there’s no way of directly monetising videos on IGTV. As reported by Variety, Systrom said he wants to build ‘engagement’ first but tentatively conceded that monetising is “obviously a very reasonable place to end up.”

If and when that does happen Facebook has the opportunity to steal a lot of video business from Google, but only if it does a better job of looking after its producers than YouTube has. Advertisers are very sensitive about having their brand positioned next to the ‘wrong’ kind of content, but accurately identifying that content is tricky. YouTube id currently erring on the side of caution, leading to innocuous videos being demonetised. If even Google can’t get that algorithm right, what hope does Facebook have?

Instagram unveils new feature, but is it worth your time?

This week Telecoms.com has 16 year-old Shannon O’Connor joining the team for work experience, and today is an assessment of Instagram’s new feature to moderate time spend on the app. Here are her thoughts. 

Earlier this week, Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom has confirmed an all-new ‘time spent’ usage insights tool in a questionable bid to improve users mental wellbeing.

Instagram is yet to comment on the ‘Usage Insights Tool’ so plans have not yet been confirmed for what the new feature will provide for its users. However, it is assumed that users will receive an outlook into the ‘daily tally’ of their minutes spent on the app whilst also receiving an alert to remind them of their daily limit.

So it seems Instagram has taken upon a whole new responsibility as a social networking app to provide services to tackle the amount of time we spend on our phones. Possibly it feels liable to take matters into its own hands when thinking about the negative impacts extended minutes online can have on teenagers and young adults like myself.

But how far will Instagram go in combatting the amount of time young adults spend on the internet?

It has been found in recent studies from the Pew Research Centre that 17% of US teens feel platforms such as Instagram harm relationships resulting in less sincere interactions. Similarly, 15% of those taking part suggested that social media distorts reality (giving many an unrealistic view of other people’s lives). A further 14% believed that teens spend too much time on social media.

This parallels with the increase in mental health problems. In the 21st century more people continue to struggle to moderate usage. In the past 25 years young people in Britain who have dealt or are dealing with anxiety/depression have risen by a climatic 70%.

The Royal Society for Public Health surveyed young people about the effects of social media through the #StautusOfMind campaign. Over 1,400 14-24 year olds were interviewed. The final results shockingly suggested that social media was ‘more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol’.

We sat down with a member of the Informa office, Tom McCormick, to hear his views on the new feature and how he thinks it may impact society among various age groups. We came to the following conclusions:

  • The content users find themselves engaging with could possibly be more damaging to mental health than the amount of time being spent on Instagram
  • If the feature was to be made into an add-on feature it would most likely become redundant as those such as himself would not invest in downloading it
  • From the perspective of a parent, those aged 20 to 40 would find no benefits in controlling the time period in which their child spent engaging on the app
  • ‘Reflective Content Moderation’ could derive better benefits for users in the long term

The alternative ‘Reflective Content Moderation’ tool was something that we believe to be more valuable. In theory, individuals who found themselves pro-actively seeking negative content may find themselves in a much more depressive state than those who found themselves viewing positive images from friends and family. If a parent had control over the content their child was seeing, the benefits that could derive from it could be far more substantial than tracking the amount of minutes spent online.

But this led to me consider if a teen would like their parent’s to accurately track their behaviour or track the amount of time that they spent on the app. Social media sites were designed to be a creative space where individuals could express themselves freely in whatever way they felt was appropriate.

Surely any implications made by the social site would purely be a window dressing; teens will always utilise their social platforms in the way they want to. For some, Instagram has failed to provide a secure and positive environment for teens to express themselves in, possibly being one origin of teen mental illness battles. It continues to give off an impression that it cares about its users; in actuality its investment in this feature is perhaps only a PR stunt to give the impression of responsibility

Furthermore, it could be said that the tool may provide a possible stop to financial development. Instagram has seen a steady increase in numbers since December 2016 when it hit 600 million. With an added 100 million users every four months, the app is now set to hit one billion this month. But now with the added burden of a potential decrease in usage minutes, advertisers could decrease investments in the app.

We will have to see whether Instagram rolls out this new feature in the next coming months or whether it makes changes; surely a track of content would be more useful than time spent on the app.

Russian censorship story highlights Facebook’s dilemma

Widespread reports that Facebook-owned Instagram has blocked posts from a political opponent of the government have brought the social media censorship issue to the fore once more.

The BBC is among the media to report on the matter, stating that Russia’s internet censor has demanded that social media companies restrict access to posts connected to corruption claims made by Alexey Navalny. Apparently YouTube received a similar request but has yet to act on it.

Navalny seems to be a fairly avid YouTuber, and the specific video flagged up in the BBC report was uploaded on 8 February and is still live, having clocked over 5 million views. Navalny took to Twitter to denounce the Instagram move and it’s generating a lot of difficult publicity for Facebook at a time when it could really do without it.

“When governments believe that something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content,” a Facebook spokeswoman told the Beeb. “We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory. We are transparent about any content restrictions we make for government requests with local law in our Transparency Report.”

Here we have the dilemma faced by all social media companies: who are they to second-guess the will of individual governments? The prevailing western narrative is to by sympathetic to Navalny and hostile to Putin – and it’s easy to believe political opposition is stifled in Russia – but we can’t possibly make an authoritative call on the veracity of Navalny’s claims, nor should we be asked to.

So while Facebook’s position on this matter appears to be kowtowing to political oppression, it’s also the will of the state apparatus in the country it’s operating. What if, on another occasion, Facebook declined such a request and it led to some unforeseen negative outcome? This is why it’s a mistake to make private companies the first point of law enforcement.