2013-10-29

Co.Labs

The One Killer Feature Instagram Lacks

Why geo-visual storytelling could be the future of the world’s fastest-growing photo network.



The "Explore" tab on Instagram is a weird place. With a name like that, you'd expect it to be a smart, algorithm-powered hub of relevant, interesting photos. Instead, what we get is a cesspool of celebs, sexy selfies, and cutesy visual puns--images deemed "popular" by some crude, generalized metric. What a letdown! So how could Instagram improve discovery?

Location data. Hidden deep within your favorite photo-sharing app are millions of stories about places. Right now, you have to do a little digging to find them, but once they surface, it’s easy to see how location-based storytelling could be the future of the app--which could make it a much more useful tool for journalists and marketers than anyone currently realizes.

The other night, I went for a run. Feeling unusually ambitious, I extended my usual route and ran down to Philadelphia's iconic Ben Franklin Bridge. After running to the end of the adjacent Race Street Pier, I turned around, marveled at the view and--as is now customary in a context such as this--took out my phone and snapped a photo.

When I got home, I opened the image in Instagram, picked a filter, added a location tag, and tapped the "Share" button. Again, pretty routine, humdrum stuff. But what happened next was interesting.

Bored, I tapped on the location tag of the photo I had just uploaded and started swiping down the array of photos found therein. Some images looked just like mine, snapped at night but at a slightly different angle. Many were taken during the day, each one framed and filtered a little differently. The scenic riverfront and Ben Franklin Bridge make the Race Street Pier a popular spot for picnics and wedding-day photo shoots alike, and the feed is peppered accordingly with images capturing those moments. Some photos captured the pier and bridge from familiar angles. Others were inventive, forcing you to look at this place from a somebody else's perspective. A few weeks ago, they held a rare nighttime concert at the end of the pier and the photos and videos of those in attendance offer a taste of what it was like to be there.

Discovering Photos Via Places (And Vice Versa)

As you scroll through the images for the Race Street Pier--or just about any location--what you get is pretty unique and heretofore impossible: A crowdsourced, visual documentation of a public place. It doesn't tell the whole story (and can only go back so far in time--just wait until Instagram is 20 years old), but it fleshes out the details of what the place looks like, who goes there, and what they do when they're there. If the location is popular enough (it helps to be in urban, smartphone-heavy locale), you can refresh the page and watch the visual narrative unfold in real time as new photos are posted.

It can be fascinating to see how people experience the bar down the street from your house (I've found new people to follow--and even friends--this way). And it's eye-opening in an entirely different way to tap the location tag on a photo you just took in a city other than your own. Who comes to this diner? What does a typical Saturday night look like in this corner pub? Even if you're just passing through town, Instagram will clue you in.

It's easy to get lost in those geotagged streams of photos, especially if a given place matters to you. This exploration makes the "Explore" tab seem that much more odd and underwhelming. The images appear to be photos that are popular across the service generally, which means they come disproportionately from popular accounts. Meanwhile, countless photographers and creative amateurs are generating high-quality imagery that's getting buried under an avalanche of pouty-faced selfies. Beyond that, the Explore tab lets you search for individual hashtags and users. That's about the extent of Instagram's photo discovery.

As plenty of other social services recognize--see Foursquare and Spotify--content discovery involves sophisticated, algorithmic smarts that go beyond a simple measurement of what gets the most clicks, taps, or likes. For each service, the discovery nut is cracked using a different blend of data points and methodologies. For Instagram, that might include social intelligence, hashtags that are trending near you, and even the kind of hand-picked photo curation that Instagram already does on its company blog.

Whatever that puzzle looks like, one of its most effectively placed pieces would certainly be location data. If people are taking lots of photos at the night market in the next neighborhood, show me. The same way Foursquare tells me that a new restaurant is trending in my neighborhood, Instagram could show me what it looks like through the eyes of patrons. The competition for users' eyeballs is only going to heat up. A data-rich and well-designed discovery experience would do wonders for keeping the Instagram addicts hooked.

[Image: Flickr user Anokarina]