Sat, May 05, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Can Instagram keep
its nose clean?

The photo-sharing app has avoided the scandal that has engulfed its owner, Facebook, but for how long?

By Gian Volpicelli  /  The Observer

Illustration: Lance Liu

It has been a rough few weeks for Facebook since the Observer reported the Cambridge Analytica data breach. The scandal revealed how the political consulting firm might have raked up the personal information of at least 87 million Facebook users to influence them with tailored political ads, sent the social network’s stocks into a tailspin, triggered the #DeleteFacebook movement — and regaled the planet with the cringefest that was chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate.

However, if Facebook’s reputation has seen better days, one of the company’s most valuable assets has come out of the kerfuffle practically unscathed.

Instagram, the photo-sharing platform Facebook acquired in 2012 for US$715 million, has not yet come up in the debate over Facebook’s cavalier attitude to user data protection, despite being of a piece with the longer-running social network (and being headquartered just a few blocks from Facebook’s Menlo Park campus in California). Prominent members of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, singer Cher, and Playboy magazine, are still pretty much present and active on Instagram.

The app’s apparent immunity to whatever befalls its owner and the possibility that this might not last even led a Reuters analyst to recommend that Facebook spin off Instagram as a separate company to shield it from reputational contagion.

Instagram’s cast-iron popularity confirms its emerging status as Facebook’s crown jewel. The app is gaining users at a breakneck pace: It only took it five months to leap from 700 million users in April last year to 800 million in September. It is especially popular with younger people: In March this year, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 were on Instagram, and that more than half of them visited it daily.

Moreover, it trounces other platforms at the engagement game: 2017 research by business intelligence firm L2 revealed that Instagram accounted for 92 percent of interactions taking place on social media, if only Facebook, Twitter and Instagram itself were considered; that dropped to a still whopping 42 percent if YouTube was also taken into account.

According to consumer data firm Statista, this year Instagram is expected to make up almost 28 percent of Facebook’s net mobile advertising revenue.

“If you measure success through the size of a community and then multiply it for engagement, Instagram gets 10 times the engagement that Facebook gets,” L2 founder and New York University professor Scott Galloway said. “In many ways, it’s currently the most successful platform in the world.”

Part of that success boils down to Instagram’s intrinsic qualities. Its visual-first model may be more appealing than Twitter’s or Facebook’s text-heavy makeup. In the absence of a share function, users only post their own pictures and videos, so there is no angsty clutter of links and reposts that took the joy out of other social networks.

“The genius of Facebook was the same [as Instagram’s] core habit: seeing other people’s photos,” said Nir Eyal, an angel investor and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. “On Facebook, that core habit was polluted with all the other junk in our feed. That’s causing a lot of the move to Instagram: people don’t want all the news, debate and politics.”

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