Instagram to third-party developers: drop dead

I’M pretty much done with Instagram. I never loved it, but it’s where most of my friends looked for my photos, so I made peace with it as a platform—and continued to use poor, old, widely unloved Flickr for more serious photo sharing. Now, though, for all I care, Instagram can get bent.

There’s a lot you can’t do with Instagram natively, but clever third-party programmers have made the platform useful and enjoyable for people who wanted more. And now, that’s over.

Instagram lowers the boom

On June 1, Instagram severely restricted what any third-party Instagram application can do. Not only can third-party apps no longer provide the features Instagram’s API supports but Instagram itself doesn’t offer; they can’t even compete with the restricted feature set Instagram natively provides.

The change in rules applies to all Instagram apps, on every mobile and desktop platform you can think of. Among the new restrictions:

  • Third-party apps can no longer display the Instagram feed.
  • They can no longer display “popular.”
  • They can’t show the follows or followers of any user profile.
  • Or let you download images.
  • Or let you like or comment on several images at once.
  • Or let you block tags and users of your choosing.

Most users didn’t need these features to enjoy Instagram, but they made it a far richer program for those who did. Nor does it look like Instagram intends to provide the functions it has just prevented the third-party apps from offering. The old Twitter gambit—learn from third-party apps; change your own offerings to match theirs; then change your API—looks positively user- and business-friendly by comparison. (More on the Twitter comparison in a moment.)

Instagram: success through limitation

Now, I have no problem with Instagram offering a limited feature set. Most great apps reach mass appeal precisely by focusing on a restricted feature set, designed for one or two use cases. And clearly Instagram knows how to reach mass appeal.

Instagram’s lack of feature depth has not prevented it from serving its core base of teenage celebrity photo followers. It doesn’t prevent entertainers and brands from using the platform as a publicity and marketing vehicle. It doesn’t stop amateur swimsuit models and photographers from building fan bases on the fringe of mainstream use. Those are the users and use cases Instagram was built to serve, and it serves them well. Its lack of additional features has never hurt it with these users, and its decision to kill off third-party apps shouldn’t cost Instagram a single customer from among the target user types I’ve just identified.

But it bugs me enough to make me walk away.

There’s two things here: one, the functionality Instagram has taken away mattered to me as a user. And two, I don’t like what this giant, ludicrously successful company just did to a bunch of small companies run by independent developers. I mean, it’s not like these third-party companies stole the API from Instagram. Instagram offered it—and for the reason every successful product does: to let other companies extend its capabilities and increase its passionate fan base.

Makes Twitter look like sweethearts

Twitter, again, is the perfect example. In 2006, it began building a following among people like you and me, while offering a very limited feature set. In the next few years, it extended its functionality by learning from its users and by monitoring the innovations pioneered by third-party products like Twitterific, Tweetbot, TweetDeck, and Hootsuite—innovations that made Twitter more popular and more essential to marketers, journalists, and other professional users. Eventually Twitter bought one of the third-party apps and incorporated its features (along with features developed by other third-party apps) into its core product.

Today, with Twitter’s offerings more robust as a consequence of this third-party development history, there’s arguably less need for some third-party Twitter apps. That is to say, even power users can have pretty feature-rich Twitter experiences while using Twitter’s native app or its website. Nonetheless, the third-party apps still exist, still offer experiences Twitter doesn’t, and still earn revenue for their designers and developers.

As an extremely active Twitter user for personal and business reasons, I sometimes find Twitter’s website or native app sufficient to my needs; and at other times, I need the power a third-party app provides. I know that Twitter hasn’t always made it easy for third-party developers—and I was personally chagrined when significant changes to Twitter’s API killed a little free product a design conference I co-founded built strictly for the pleasure of our attendees. But, Twitter didn’t murder its third-party ecosystem, and it didn’t obliterate features that matter to secondary but passionate users.

And Instagram just did.

Goodbye to all that

Instagram certainly won’t miss me, and its decision makers won’t read this. Nor, if they read it, would they care. So this is about me. And a slightly sick feeling in my stomach.

Not because I even really need those extra Instagram features. Flickr, while it yet lives, provides me with far richer layers of experience and capability than even the most tricked-out third-party Instagram app could dream of. I always used Instagram under protest, as a poor cousin. I used it because people were there, not because I liked it. I like Flickr, even though posting my photos there is kind of like leaving flowers at the grave of someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

No, I feel queasy because I can’t decide whether Instagram is just a bully that decided to beat up the small fry independent developers, or (more likely) a clumsy, drunken giant that doesn’t feel the bodies squashing under its feet.

And we thought Instagram was over when they changed the logo last month.


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