Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I own neither an iPod nor an Android—but I have a couple of little handheld cameras and the Picasa software on my PC. Impossession (to coin a word) of these newest devices made it impossible for me to test the great innovation that has catapulted Instagram in two years from a raw startup without money to a $1 billion corporation which will be soon be the property of Facebook. The hoopla made me curious. What innovation has caused this astonishing growth? Was it the company’s ability to hold down total employment to 13? Thirteen is a good number!

The simple answer is that social media represents our only evidently growing industry, and the founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (based on photos they’re in their twenties) wrote software for the little hand-held devices capable of editing photos, on the phones themselves, and publishing them on social networks, not least Instagram’s own. The technology consists of sixteen filters that manipulate a snapshot. The filters have fetching names like Amaro, Hudson, Xpro-II, Inkwell (for black-and-white), Hefe, Nashville, and 1977 along with others. That last one, presumably, to make pictures look antique. The innovation here lies in automating the editing function. You can have any look, dear users, so long as it’s one of those sixteen.

Making their storage systems work rapidly—and creating a system that will scale massively and rapidly—shows me that Systrom and Krieger know their stuff.  They’re using very sophisticated database management techniques that probably took much longer to learn than pixel manipulation. It isn’t innovative because the techniques they deploy were pioneered by Google quite some time ago.

Reasonable photo editors perform  the functions of those filters well—albeit it takes more time and thought. Picasa’s software is among them—also free. To give some sense of what I’m talking about, here is a before-and-after of an old winter outdoor shot of mine.

Now the original is nice enough—but if you want to make it look more edgy, contradictory—thus as if night were just around the corner, the modified image is a “filtered” version.

The miracle of economic growth that Instagram represents appears, therefore, to rest entirely on the miniaturization of computers and the irresistible attraction advertisers feel when viewing large numbers of people at play. 

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