Digital photo and video are taken exactly the same way: light soaking into a sensor. Yet the essence of them is so different. One is a moment frozen in time, the other is a moment captured. It’s a big difference, the distinction between a butterfly captured alive to flutter around inside a jar and a one a lepidopterist has pinned to a board for classification.
Today, Instagram announced that they are bringing video clips to their previously still-only social network. On the surface of things, it’s a clear reaction to Twitter’s encroachment with Vine, a video-only social network in which snippets of life are captured in six second spurts. Yet look deeper, and Instagram is trying to do something more interesting: Keep the butterfly alive while keeping it pinned.
The way video will work on Instagram is elegant. Load up your Instagram stream and nothing will look much different: you’ll still see a long vertical carousel of still images with captions and vintage filters applied to them.
The difference, however, is that if you tap on some of these images, they’ll start to move. They’ll turn into videos, which can be up to fifteen seconds each and have a number of video-specific filters applied to them. When you upload a video to Instagram, the service finishes everything off by asking you which frame to display as the preview image. These photos are just videos that have collapsed into a single moment in time.
The brilliance of Instagram’s approach to introducing video to the service is that it’s not just that if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to; it’s that you don’t even have to see videos if you don’t want to. If all you care about is photos, then that is all that Instragram will show you. But if you touch a photo? It might suddenly come to life.
One of the things that made Instagram the perfect social network is that it was a purified form of sharing, in which the only thing being shared was a transfixed moment in time. There were, of course, other photo social networks before but Instagram managed to make in-roads with casual shutterbugs in a way sites like Flickr never could: it’s not just that they made it fun and easy for people to share photos, it’s that they made people feel like artists while they did so. Now they’re doing the same thing with video.
Now that Instagram has introduced video to the service, it’s natural to wonder if the social network’s winning formula of simplicity has been compromised by its $1 billion Facebook buyout. Is this just the beginning of a long period of feature creep, culminating in the Facebook-style sharing of our entire lives?
The way that Instagram has handled video is a reason to have renewed faith in the service. Yes, they’ve responded to Twitter’s Vine service by introducing video, but they did so elegantly, allowing anyone to turn a photograph into a memory in just a tap. More importantly, they did so without compromising the core vision with which the company was founded, more than a billion dollars ago.
Now that we can tickle the butterfly alive, the question for Instagram is: What’s next? As a social network, it’s perfect; as a medium for sharing light soaking into a sensor, there’s no new frontiers to forge. Instagram will be pressured to do more, to add more features, to allow you to share more things. But now that video is here, this is it: If they do anything more, they’ll simply stop being Instagram.