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Blame holidays for Instagram slippage, AppData says

The analytics firm suggests that any drop in user numbers stemmed from the holiday effect on daily routines, not Instagram's unpopular new terms of service.

What's really behind today's reported decline in Instagram numbers? AppData -- which touched off a firestorm today when the New York Post used its data to suggest that Instagram had lost nearly a quarter of its daily users -- says that the holidays are likely to blame, rather than proposed changes to its terms of service.

"Though the terms-of-service change spurred a lot of negative media attention and complaints from users, the decline in Facebook-connected daily active users began closer to Christmas, not immediately after the proposed policy change," said Brittany Darwell, speaking on behalf of AppData owner Inside Network. "The drop between December 24 and 25 seems likely to be related to the holiday, during which time people are traveling and otherwise have different routines than usual. A number of other apps saw similar trends, including Skype, Pandora, Pinterest and Yelp."

The Post had reported that someone at analytics firm AppData claimed to be "pretty sure" the decline was related to changes in the terms of service; Darwell told me that quote was "not authorized for publication." In any case, AppData isn't standing behind it.

I asked Darwell how AppData squared Instagram's apparent usage decline on Christmas with its performance on Thanksgiving, when it crowed about a record-breaking number of photos being shared.

"Instagram's Thanksgiving milestone was related to the number of photos shared on that day, not the number of users," she said. "Unfortunately we have no way of knowing how many actual photos were shared over Christmas unless Instagram announces that."

Still, on Thanksgiving, AppData reported that Instagram had 14.5 million daily active users connected to Facebook. On Christmas, that number had fallen to 12.5 million users.

At the same time, the number of monthly active Instagram users increased, from 38.7 million on Thanksgiving to 42.5 million on Christmas.

Instagram told CNET earlier today that active users continue to increase.

Darwell also answered another question many of us had about today's story in the Post: how many Instagram users connect with Facebook, and can therefore be tracked by companies like AppData. The company estimates that 20 to 30 percent of Instagram users are connected, Darwell said. It's a minority, but as samples go it's a large one.

"AppData is a sample, and to really understand whether proposed policy changes had any effect on the service, we'll need to observe how that sample changes over time," Darwell said. On that point at least, we all can agree.