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Color, Instagram and the elastic network

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8 April 2011
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The elastic Network - RAAK

The elastic Network - RAAK

There’s much excitement over the opportunities created by the triangle between social, mobile and location technology. The fuss over the $41 million funded Color app and the meteoric growth of Instagram has added fuel to the fire.

To recap – we noted last week that we too had our doubts about Color, the new ‘photo-sharing’ app:

Its interface is obtuse to the extreme and it has inspired one of the best App Site reviews ever.

And it only does one thing, really. Take a picture, and it will be added to a photo album with any other photos taken by anybody in about 150 meters from yours. No friending required. Besides the fact that it’s a boon for voyeurs and exhibitionists everywhere, we’re a bit unsure whether it deserves 41 million in funding, although some on Quora beg to differ.

Robert Scoble was one of the most vocal ciritics of Color. But then – a few days later – he interviewed the founders including Peter Pham.

And that certainly put Color in a different light. Color has very powerful tech under the hood, if it works like they say it does. And tests by us over the weekend suggested it might.

Fellow RAAKonteur Adriaan Pelzer analyses their tech in this week’s tech post, but suffice to say that Color will be using the phone’s full array of sensors (including the camera, the mic, the compass and GPS) to determine who a user is close to at any given time. At times even when they don’t have a phone signal!

So what do they want to do with this information?

They want to build the ‘elastic network’.

The Color founders claim that Facebook is a service we reserve for our friends and family, but not for the people we work with or interact with on a day-to-day basis. It certainly is true to a big extent. Although Facebook is trying to be more Twitter-like – it is still the domain for your strong ties.

In social networking theory the point is made that we learn most and get more opportunities (jobs, dates) from those people that are not in our direct networks, but from the so-called weak ties. Friends of friends or people in your neigbourhood. These people step in and out of our networks. This is the elastic network and it’s what Color seeks to capitalise on. They want to help us discover who these weak ties are, and then help us keep contact, or not.

It’s Facebook for the other people in your life. Now you could argue that that is kind of what Twitter is. The famous maxim, Facebook is for people you do know that you don’t want to interact with, but that Twitter is the reverse – the network for the people that you don’t know but want to get to know – rings truer than most people would care to admit.

But Twitter is hard work.

Twitter lacks identity information. And Twitter lacks easy conversation pieces, say compared to Instagram. Unlike on Facebook, where you can just be through your profile, where the simple act of friending is content and where news hangs around for you to see it. Or as opposed to Instagram, where you effortlessly snap gorgeous little easily digestible pics. On Twitter it’s different; you have to Tweet. All the time.

You Tweet therefor you are. And being interesting – even in just 140 characters – will always be hard for 80% of the population.

Ah Instagram. The super slick but simple service only available on the iPhone has come from nowhere and now has 3 million users in 6 months.

It originally irritated me that Instagram was generating a glut of – admittedly good looking – photos, using filters. That was compared to the genuinely good but hard-to-do photography you find on Flickr. It was just too easy.

But I missed the point. Instagram is not about photography.

Adding Color to the Royal wedding

Adding Color to the Royal wedding

Instagram is a way to communicate. In an illuminating interview with Techcrunch this week their founders – Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger – called Instagram an entertainment platform:

“By no means do we think of Instagram as just a photo-sharing service,” said Systrom. “It’s something that a lot of people lump us into, but we’d like to think of ourselves as a storytelling service. It’s the way you go out in the world and tell a story about your life, and it’s a new entertainment platform. You can open it up and see a story about what your friends are doing, but also [that] ABC World News is posting photos of someone in Japan reporting on the nuclear crisis. It’s really moving to see those things coming together through images.”

The Color founders must be thinking the same thing. That their app is not about photography, but about communication and sharing. And if that’s what you do and your app achieves scale, building a social network might be achievable. Whether they will succeed will depend on much going right for them.

Color have fixed their complicated UX somewhat in a release earlier this week. But their app needs a critical mass to work.

They hope to use the British Royal Wedding as a test case. One of the things that the Color app claims to be able to do is group people together that are indeed at an event together. Even when the group is very big.

So as the Royal Carriage passes down the Mall, Color will show the pics everybody is taking. But because they are focusing on a particular point, the Royal entourage, Color will figure out who is closest to the action. It will send everybody the pics of the users closest to the action. Magic!

Or at least, that is the claim.

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