Instagram, Twitter lob grenades in war over value of photos

If a picture's worth a thousand words, then control over the picture has never been more crucial in Silicon Valley.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Instagram and Twitter are now in a pitched battle over who will control the photo-sharing war. Illustration by Daniel Terdiman/CNET

You've heard it said countless times: A picture's worth a thousand words.

If you think that's not at least as true online as it is offline, you haven't been paying attention to the explosive machinations in the war for digital real estate going on in Silicon Valley over the last year or so.

Today, the tech world is all worked up over the latest in the slow-moving war of attrition between Instagram and Twitter. By cutting off Twitter Card integration, Instagram is hoping to wean its users off Twitter.

This is a seismic event, especially with tens of millions of people flooding the Internet with photos taken on increasingly high-quality smartphone cameras. According to a study done this summer by page classifier Diffbot, 36 percent of all links shared on Twitter were for photos, a number that's surely climbing by the day. Perhaps even more striking in the Diffbot study is that of those links, 40 percent were to Twitter-hosted photos, while just 15 percent went to Instagram.

Just a few years ago, this photo-sharing arms race was moving slowly, despite the plummeting cost of digital point-and-shoots. But with Apple making the camera an integral part of the iPhone, and Android phones following suit, Instagram came along and took everyone by surprise. It even caught Facebook flat-footed, given that Mark Zuckerberg's dominant social network had an obvious Achilles' heel: It was built for the Web and was having trouble keeping up on mobile. Facebook wanted photos to be a key part of users' experience, but all of a sudden, everyone with an iPhone was using Instagram.

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom speaks at the LeWeb conference in Paris. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Twitter, too, was caught off guard, even though it was a mobile-centric service. Its users were passionate and shared lots of photos, but the experience seemed like an afterthought. Instagram changed all that. Twitter wanted to buy it -- and failed. Facebook ponied up and got Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and his team.

At Le Web in Paris today, Systrom said one of the main reasons his service cut off the Twitter Card integration was that Instagram wants its users to view their photos on its own Web site, and not on Twitter. But he also said he expects to continue working with Twitter in one form or another.

The move makes viewing Instagram photos on Twitter a worse experience, given that the images now come across oddly cropped. Some speculate that the decision was a shot directed across Twitter's bow by Facebook. Others feel that this was Systrom making his own moves to ensure his service gains ground against Twitter.

But whatever the reason, it's clear that while there's no love lost between Facebook and Instagram on one side and Twitter on the other, today's move, as well as others in the battle in recent months, are all about trying to get the soldiers in line -- with users being the soldiers in this metaphor.

While both Twitter and Facebook grew prodigiously, they took several years to become dominant social networks. Instagram, by comparison, is still relatively young, but is now universally acknowledged as the tool of choice for sharing photos from mobile devices, something that's even more true as its user base skyrockets in the wake of the Facebook acquisition and integration and its resulting network effects increase.

By cutting off Twitter Card integration, Instagram is ensuring that the experience of viewing Instagram photos on Twitter is worse. Twitter

If you think Twitter's OK with that, think again. Just last month, a report surfaced that Twitter was working on developing its own tools for filtering photos, a feature that if successfully implemented, would help Twitter blunt Instagram's growing advantage on mobile. Any other company trying to launch its own version of Instagram would fail right away at this point, given Systrom's head start of tens of millions of users. But Twitter has a nine-figure user base of its own, and it would instantly have credibility as a standalone service for sharing artistic photos. There's every reason to believe that Twitter is furiously trying to figure out how to out-Instagram Instagram, and to do so before it's too late to catch up.

For his part, Systrom has said he was hardly worried by Twitter's plans to build its own Instagram-like features. Speaking at the GigaOm Road Map conference in San Francisco last month, Systrom said, "I don't think that in any way threatens Instagram because Instagram is a community and not a filter app."

That sentiment, of course, is a bit disingenuous given that Twitter has a pretty solid community of its own, and one that surely loves to take and share photos, even if that isn't quite the same primary directive as it is on Instagram.

But while Twitter's plans to build its own version of Instagram are just unconfirmed rumors (so far), what's not in doubt is that Twitter has been rolling out feature after feature aimed at chipping away at its rival's perceived advantages. Last month, the company unveiled a set of new features in both its Web and mobile clients. Among the most important additions was a set of "top" photos and videos in search results. As an example, if you do a Twitter search for "sunrise," you get a group of photos of sunrises above the resulting column of tweets, as well as a row of video thumbnails off to the side.

As Ben Parr wrote for CNET this morning, there's no doubt that each of the moves made recently on both sides of this turf war are about money. On the one hand, Twitter is feverishly trying to boost its ad revenue, and anything it can do to make using its service more attractive to more audiences is a good thing from the perspective of brands and other advertisers. For its part, at a final price tag of $715 million in Facebook stock and cash, Instagram isn't just a Zuckerberg vanity acquisition. Instagram displays no ads and has no clear revenue model. That will have to change, and sooner rather than later.

The key to all this is that users really, really like imagery. Twitter's 140-character posts were an innovation and to this day are a great way to share all manner of thoughts with the world at large. But as the saying goes, a photo truly does convey more, and more quickly at that. That's one reason why Twitter has strangled third-party image-hosting services in its mobile apps. Where there used to be a wide range of tools users could choose from when posting photos via Twitter on a mobile device -- TwitPic, YFrog, Mobypicture, and others -- there's no such choice today. Twitter wants control over that, because it knows that its revenue potential is far greater if it's the only choice for all those iPhone- and Android-toting Twitter users out there snapping and sharing photos by the millions.

One bit of evidence that imagery makes for a more compelling story than text alone comes from Tout, a video-sharing service. According to Tout, users who consistently embed its 15-second videos in their tweets see substantially faster Twitter follower growth than those who don't. And Instagram's rocket-like trajectory from small startup to billion-dollar acquisition (before Facebook's troubled IPO lowered its value) was fueled by the ease of sharing, and by its mastery of mobile.

Now, we're seeing an all-out battle to claim every available bit of real estate. Twitter is trying to make sure its mobile apps are as rich as its Web experience, Facebook is desperately trying to figure out mobile, and Instagram has finally moved onto the Web.

Users are likely to be the winner here. Despite the fact that Twitter users will find it harder to share Instagram photos, the ultimate result of all this jockeying for position is that it will simply be easier and quicker to take and share photos. And more and more, those pictures will stand alone, telling the story users want to tell. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and at massive scale, that ratio becomes truly impressive.