Facebook Paid Instagram $1 Billion for Emotion. What's It Worth to the Environment?

© AMC TV

Following yesterday's bombshell announcement that Facebook was acquiring the photo-sharing network, Instagram, there was a vocal reaction, especially regarding the $1 billion price tag.

I have been thinking about this for a while (well, since last night) and think this high-dollar acquisition provides a valuable lesson to be learned for the environmental and social movements.

One of the better pieces of analysis I read was from Om Malik who shared his ideas for why Facebook would pay so much for Instagram. In his post, "Here's Why Facebook Bought Instagram" Malik explains how Facebook isn't that good at being a mobile company and then makes a key point about how this all comes back to emotion:

Instagram is the exact opposite. It has created a platform built on emotion. It created not a social network, but instead built a beautiful social platform of shared experiences. Facebook and Instagram are two distinct companies with two distinct personalities. Instagram has what Facebook craves—passionate community. People like Facebook. People use Facebook. People love Instagram. It is my single most-used app. I spend an hour a day on Instagram. I have made friends based on photos they share. I know how they feel, and how they see the world. Facebook lacks soul. Instagram is all soul and emotion.

I think he's right on. This was not just about buying some more audience or taking out a competitor.

The major players in this space all seem to be heading in similar directions. Twitter's stream serves as a real-time timeline of what is happening and what has happened. Facebook, already, is the platform we go to when we want to share our life's important events with friends and family. It's something Google is acutely aware of and addresses directly with their advertising for Google+.

Facebook needed a soul transplant.
Facebook had already secured its position as a place to share milestones and important events. But with Timeline, Facebook is reaching into our past as well and Instagram is an obvious way to soften that hard edge between the immediate and the remembered.

My co-worker David DeFranza (who also helped me greatly on this post) made a good point this morning about how Facebook is trying to create a world in which it feels like Facebook has been with us our entire lives. They are aiming to become the scrapbook of our humanly existence, at least digitally.

For a glimpse of their vision, watch this promo video announcing the new Timeline layout.

Facebook launched in 2004, but with Timeline we can post and visit updates and milestones from our lives going back as far as we have been on this Earth and they want to be there with us into the future. There's even a moment in the video when the camera appears as if it is zooming along the Timeline like it is a road. The path of life, perhaps, all curated and archived on Facebook.

But even with all the expertise and engineering smarts that went into the Timeline tool, they haven't succeeded in creating the emotional reaction that they are hoping for in that ad. But on Instagram, because of the great filters, simple photos are filled with emotion.

There's a famous scene in Season 1 of Mad Men of Don Draper giving a powerful pitch about the role a Kodak slide projector can play in a consumer's life.

Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro copywriter. Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is "new". Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of... calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It's delicate... but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means, "the pain from an old wound". It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the Wheel. It's called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again... to a place where we know we are loved.

Timeline is a Time Machine
It wasn't surprising to see this scene re-imagined following the launch of Timeline. Some creative person re-edited the scene to show Draper pitching Timeline instead of the Kodak Carousel. (Sorry, embedding was disabled on that video.)

That is what Timeline wants to become. But if Timeline is to succeed as a time machine, it has to look the way people want to remember their lives. We don't want to look back at our lives and instead of remembering events with fondness be distracted or dissapointed by how terrible our photos looked. People are vain. We want to look good or at least have our photos look cool.

Facebook knows that they need users to feel that emotion that Draper describes when they look through their Timelines or the Timelines of their loved ones and social circles. It's worth noting here that the filters are just part of what justified this acquisition. Alexis Madrigal made this point on Twitter when he posted that filters are just what Instagram does, not what it is.



Instagram is so much more than just filters, but even so, adding Instagram photos to my Timeline has made it look much better than it would have otherwise. And I can only imagine how much closer to the true vision of Timeline Facebook will be able to get if people are able to Instagrammify all their Timeline pictures. Timelines will suddenly really feel more like the paper scrapbooks and old-school photo albums we've grown accustomed to flipping through.

© Chris Tackett
But what does any of this have to do with the environmental or social progress movements?
It all comes down to storytelling.

We spoke with Annie Leonard last fall about her Story of Stuff project and one of the things I asked her about was how the sustainability movement could learn from her success. Her answer was to focus on storytelling. That moment comes at around the 20:00 mark in the video below.

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How Emotion and Storytelling Can Change the World
Many of the issues we're dealing with, from climate change to the energy crisis or food security to health issues, are all complicated and involve lots of variables, but they can still be summarized in the form of a story. There are good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. People need to know what characters are involved in a story and what they should think about them. We certainly still want to provide all the facts to let people make their own decisions about these complex debates, but as experts in these fields, we need to help make the issues we care about easy to digest and provide clear action steps for how to fix things. And what Annie was trying to say—something I've come to really appreciate—is that you just can't do this well without telling a story.

© Chris Tackett
Emotion can be a tool and it's worth a billion dollars to Facebook. How much is it worth to the environment? To the world? How can we better use emotion and story telling to educate and inspire people about these world changing issues we're covering in the environmental movement?

Facebook buying Instagram won't give us answer to these problems. But this decision was not made lightly. Serious thinking and deliberation had to have gone into this. And if money talks, I think this billion dollars is telling us how important we should be taking the issue of emotions and storytelling. Our challenge now will be to use this lesson to effectively communicate about the issues we care about.

What do you think? How do you think story telling could improve the environmental movement?

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