You'd be forgiven, if at first glance, you thought you were staring at Nike's Facebook page. You're actually gawking at its Instagram Web profile, a new feature that's rolling out for all Instagram users over the next week. It's the first major "un-Instagrammy" change since the service was acquired by Facebook, and it's probably going to leave some users grumbling.
John and I say it so often lately about social networks that we joke about it: "Your mom is looking a lot more like Facebook." But it's now truer of Facebook-owned Instagram than any other social network around — even as Facebook and Instagram continue to insist that Instagram operates independently inside of Facebook. I mean, just look at Nike's Instagram profile. It's got the same virtual bones as its Facebook page, just a more beautiful skin.
While Instagram's Web profiles sound like a minor feature, they mark something more profound in a couple of ways. By exploding Instagram out of a mobile-only context in a meaningful way for the very first time, the bubble of privacy and intimacy that had been a hallmark of Instagram — however illusory it was — may finally pop. Web profiles finally make it easy to see every photo a user has posted, in a way that was not possible previously without using a third-party Instagram service. And you can do it on a computer. Everything by everyone is exposed on every platform now, unless you've got a locked account. To that point: A very public Instagram profile is going to be very Googleable and visible in a way that third-party Instagram services are not – much more like your Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The thing is, by being an exclusively mobile service until now, Instagram was able to tap into something deeply emotional, which was exactly what made it special — there's something far more personal about mobile, to the extent that even as Instagram has ballooned into a service with a 100 million users, there's still largely been a sense that even public profiles are kind of hidden. Or at least somehow safer, not like a wide open Twitter or Facebook profile. It's where you can be yourself. Your real real self, not your social media self. (Though the media's rampant usage of Instagram photos for Sandy coverage may have gone a long way toward bursting that particular bubble as well.) I doubt that people will stop using Instagram, but I suspect there's going to be a general if vague sense that Instagram has lost something. That "something" is a sense of safety, and it's hard to be genuine and emotional when you don't feel safe.
The other profound shift engendered by Web profiles is that it looks like the first obvious way for Instagram to make money without touching its core product on phones. This Nike profile is a beautiful brand page — and now there's an easy way to get there, even if you don't want to follow Nike on your phone. How long before Nike stops sending you to facebook.com/nike and starts plugging instagram.com/nike? There is something to this page — while the Facebook timeline is wordy and cold and transactional, Nike's Instagram page is raw imagery and emotion. It makes me feel something, and I don't even care about Nike, really. Its Facebook page just reminds me I have somewhere else to be, something else to like.
Users haven't rebelled against Instagram yet — well not too much, anyway — but brands going big hand in hand with the new Web profiles exposing users to the rest of the Internet for the first time, though, could change all that. The open light of day sterilizes, and emotions, Instagram's stock-in-trade, tend to be messy and unsanitary. If users don't love Instagram, is it still Instagram?