So your favourite little startup just got bought out by an Internet behemoth. We've played this game before! It usually doesn't turn out too well for anyone without a financial stake in the deal. Which is to say: you.
When small startups with passionate user bases are absorbed by larger companies — think Flickr, Blogger, Brizzly, Dodgeball — it's typically a train wreck. Andy Baio, whose own little calendaring company, Upcoming, was bought out and subsequently wrecked by Yahoo probably spoke for most of us today with the following tweet.
A six-person team bought by an Internet giant. Does that story ever end well?
— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) April 9, 2012
Of course, both companies are promising nothing is going to change. They have to say that, and you'd be right to be skeptical. But there's also a very good chance that Facebook might pull this off — if it follows a few key rules.
Instagram is famously small. And that tiny team has something important: vision. And a great product. And a laser-sharp focus on improving it without making it bloated or betraying its spirit. Often, after a small company gets bought out by a much larger one, the team that made the product worth buying — or enough of it — splits after a couple of years.
Facebook needs to keep Instagram blood in/blood out. Let it keep making its own hires. Don't fill it up with Facebookers, with a different institutional culture. Hell, don't make it a division that has to answer to other divisions. If its co-founders have to start "interfacing" with product teams at Facebook concerned with making Instagram do things Facebook's way, they're going to leave. Keeping co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger onboard and focused on product should be Facebook's top priority. The day you see either of them "leaving to pursue other interests" is the day you know Instagram is dead.
Facebook says it wants to keep Instagram tightly integrated with other social services, like Twitter and Flickr. That's a nice sentiment, but it's completely counter to Facebook's culture. Sure, you can import your Twitter and Flickr feeds into Facebook, but you can't go the other way around — and that's very much by design.
Zuckerberg is greedy when it comes to your digital life. He wants your data to remain in places where he can serve ads on it. Facebook is all about walling users off. Keeping them in The Blue, to play games, read news, listen to music, and watch videos.
Instagram is all about exporting. Its killer feature is not photo processing; it's sharing. It's grown so much precisely because its garden is open air. Yeah, you may grow your roses on Instagram, but you can display them anywhere. Instagram needs to not only keep the services it has already has, but it needs to continue to actively add more. It would be extremely encouraging to see Google+ integration, for example, just as a sign of good faith.
It will be extremely tempting for Facebook to keep Instagram in its own jewel box. That can't happen. Unlike Facebook, what's posted to Instagram is by and large public. As a flood of new people post searchable, tagged photos of riots, revolutions, emergencies and, well, more than simply hipster-centric photos of food and fixies, Instagram will become an amazing news-gathering tool. You'll see it used (even more than today) to document the world we live in as it happens in all sorts of vital ways. If Facebook absorbs Instagram, there's a good chance that real-time broadcast network will turn into something resembling CCTV.
After Yahoo bought Flickr, it didn't give its acquisition the resources it needed. Same story when Google bought Dodgeball. And from those stumbles arose opportunities — namely Instagram and Foursquare. Facebook can't make that mistake. Instagram is already having some growing pains. It's not terribly uncommon to see images not load due to server issues. Facebook could cure those ills.
What's more, with Facebook's pockets, Instagram could become even more vital by coming to even more platforms. Windows phone seems an obvious place to start. An actual functional Web app that I can browse from my computer? Yes please.
You want to Instagram's filters to let your uncool niece post hipster-riffic photos to her Timeline? Fine. Put all the Instagram into Facebook that you want. But don't do the reverse. Keep Instagram weird.
Instagram doesn't need Like buttons or Pokes or other Facebook features. The friend lists shouldn't be meshed. I shouldn't have to connect it to Facebook. It doesn't need any Facebook branding. It doesn't need a blue border. It doesn't need to prompt me to add my neighbour, or my boss, or anyone else I'm Facebook "friends" with. And I should never, ever, ever have to export to Facebook. It can't become "Instagram, a Facebook company." Because if that happens, the unique network and culture its built will vanish. And Facebook will just have wasted a billion pounds.