SHAFAQNA – It’s raining in San Francisco. Hard. Trees have already fallen, and the skeletons of cast-off umbrellas are tumbling down the street. This is the kind of storm that drives a girl to social media to watch the drama unfold. And while Twitter historically has been the best place to unearth real-time updates and descriptions, it’s not nearly as compelling as the stream of images flooding Instagram today.
Don’t believe me? Go ahead. Try it. Pull up your app and hit the magnifying glass on the bottom left. That’s the explore tab. Now search for rain in San Francisco, or better yet, try searching for the hashtag #Hellastorm. There’s a photo of cars driving down a road so flooded their wheels are invisible beneath the water. There’s a photo of a sign on the door of Santa Rosa Junior College, announcing it’s closing at noon. And there’s the one I just posted of my friend Carla throwing sandbags into the back of her station wagon to stop the water currently gushing into her garage.
Embedded in the captions, many of which are dense with information, is the kind of local news I’ve seen before—in tweets. The puddle at 9th and Irving went up to mid-calf. This section of Highway 1 in Pacifica near Manor Drive is flooded. Instagram has become a visual version of the real-time news stream that Twitter invented. And with 300 million monthly active users, it’s beating out the little blue bird to become the dominant mass messaging platform.
Consider each company’s growth rate: It took Instagram just nine months to boost its user base by 50 percent. By contrast, the number of monthly active users on Twitter has remained nearly stagnant over the past year. At 284 million, the figure rose just 4.8 percent last quarter. More troubling, this pace of growth is slower than the previous quarter even though Twitter overhauled the new user experience to make it easier to understand how it works.
Instagram owes its growing role as a news service to the rise of photos as a form of communication. They’re faster to take and often easier to decode. “I think we’re at the stage right now where exchanging simple text-based messages on a social platform seems antiquated,” says Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst with eMarketer who has been covering social media and realtime marketing for more than a decade. Twitter of course carries photos, too, but, she says, “The platform is st-ill very heavily text.”
And Instagram is a heck of a lot easier to use than Twitter, even after its user experience tweaks. Instagram is simple: sign up, choose a few people to follow, and snap a photo. Twitter is complicated and not always intuitive for new users. It requires them to learn conventions like “RT” (retweet) and “MT” (modified tweet) and that pesky period you place before the @ symbol to ensure that everyone in your feed can read a response you post to another tweeter. (Have I already lost you? Then you know what I mean.)
Despite this, Twitter remains a better tool for discovering new information — for now. It has a more robust search engine and product features like “lists” that allow users to lump feeds together by topic and follow them. Users can search from the desktop as well as the mobile app. And the service allows tweeters to link to outside information. What’s more, users — including government agencies and media companies — have created accounts that can serve as emergency alert systems. When I needed to figure out whether street cleaning was canceled this morning, I tweeted at @SF311 and got an answer fairly quickly.
Yesterday I called up Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger to get his thoughts on how Instagram might evolve to become a better tool for news junkies like me. He says that in 2015, the service will be focused on helping users figure out what’s going on.
I asked him if he considered Instagram to be a news service. “Of course!” he said. “A lot of the photos people post are things that are breaking news.” He talked about the posts that emerged in the runup to Hurricane Sandy in New York City in October 2012. “We saw people getting ready for the storm, and it made the experience more human,” he said. “I remember one Instagrammer who posted, ‘It’s time to turn off the electricity in the house so from now on I’ll be instagramming in the dark.’”
So far, search isn’t all that good on the app (and it doesn’t exist on the desktop version). You can look for users or you can guess at hashtags–subject headings–that might summarize an event. You pretty much have to think up the hashtags yourself, though. In other words, Instagram remains as opaque as Mary Poppins’ carpet bag: it contains many useful and surprising items, but you can’t reliably find or organize them.
Another shortcoming is that Instagram’s algorithms to help users discover photos on its explore page only surface content based on pictures users have posted in the past. “We tend to put things up there based on what you like, versus what you’re interested in,” Krieger explained, adding, “It’s a subtle difference, but important.” Case in point: I’m very interested in the Ferguson riots. But I don’t like riots at all. Instagram would not have surfaced photos of the event for me, had I not searched them out.
Krieger assures me that search will improve in 2015. “We’ll keep developing the real-time current events angle,” he says. The company has built up a data team over the past year. A couple of weeks ago, Instagram started suggesting people that a user might want to follow. It’s a start, and it will certainly make Instagram even more alluring to the people who now turn to Twitter for news.
Even without top-notch tools, Instagram is awash in interesting news. With ever more creative approaches to hashtagging, we’ll all get better at finding what we’re looking for. #hellastorm #stormwatch #californiapocalypse
SOURCE : http://www.wired.com/