Lots of people were shocked when Facebook spent a whole billion dollars to acquire Instagram, the little photography app that could – despite it never having made a dime in its short life. Social networks don't produce anything tangible, so they tend to be valued according to guestimates of their future usefulness to advertisers.
But of all the intangible value judgements made of Instagram, the barmiest is surely the users' complaint that a beloved bit of iPhone software had "sold out".Of course Instagram sold out in a literal sense. But to some it sold out in the more traditional, metaphorical sense, like Iggy Pop doing car insurance ads.
The criticism suggested an app could somehow betray a set of inherent principles. Instagram images are manipulated to resemble distressed facsimiles, so they feel like photos you've come across in an old chest of drawers. They look like Polaroids – a company that twice went quaintly bankrupt.
The app's default font is of the sort some independent coffee shop might use on its menu. Thus Instagram chimes with the resurgent craft movement, like vintage jewellery or home-baked cupcakes. Some users seemed to think this gave it a kind of countercultural integrity.
Many of the complainers surely have Facebook accounts. Many of them own devices manufactured by multinational tech companies, which they used to post complaints about the spending habits of one vast social network, via a slightly less vast social network.
It's a web entrepreneur's ambition to be bought by one of Apple, Google, Facebook or Twitter. (Microsoft, if they're desperate.) Next month there'll be another Instagram. Love it enough and maybe one day it'll be sold for a billion dollars, too. Just don't expect it to love you back.
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