Photography’s Third Act

When personal photography was first becoming popular, it was mostly used for experimentation and artistic expression, like portraiture. Over time, as costs decreased and fidelity increased, photos gained a second function: they became a system for people to store their memories. And only very recently have we begun to experience the third major function of photography, and I think it’s far more important than the other two: photos for individual communication.

Before Instagram launched, there was a huge ecosystem of photo sharing apps that were trying to capitalize on the sudden convergence of mobile phones and cameras. Some friends of mine were working on one of them, an app called Treehouse. It was shut down long ago, after Instagram suddenly sucked up the entire photo sharing market, but the first prototype captured something magical about photos that nothing has been able to replicate until very recently.

The very first prototype of Treehouse, which was really just a technical test, had only one feature – you could take a photo and share it within our small group of friends. That was it. Nothing had been built yet for interaction, so there were no photo titles, no “liking,” and no commenting. It was just a feed of photos. And because we didn’t care about the technology or who would see what we were sharing, we used Treehouse as a private group communication tool. Instead of taking photos to maintain memories, we used them for instantaneous communication. And the resolution of information in a photo, it turns out, is huge when compared to text or even to voice. A photo can tell you where someone is, what time it is, who they are with, and much more. When you focus heavily on artistry, which Instagram does, it becomes much harder to take photos that truly represent the moment you’re sharing.

Because Treehouse didn’t have comments or liking, if you wanted to respond to someone, you had to respond with a photo. After a few days, someone figured out that he could write a comment on a piece of paper, take a photo of it, and share it with the group. Suddenly, all of the necessary pieces for a successful social app were there: the communication system and the feedback mechanism. It was an awesome experience, and I loved the app.

That is, until liking, comments, and titles were added. Everyone wanted and begged for those features, of course, but adding them had an unforeseeable negative side effect: they removed the expectation that photos should be used for communication, and instead gave the impression that communication should happen around the photos. The centuries-old expectation that photos should be artistic crept in, and the fun photo chats we had suddenly stopped.

How could adding features that people were begging for make the experience completely different, and much worse? It was a tough lesson for Treehouse: the way you design something–including which features you add or omit–informs users about how the product should be used.

Since using that early prototype of Treehouse, I’ve been wanting something that replicated the feeling of using photos for communication, and nothing has come close. It seems that every photo sharing app ends up adding features like commenting, which destroys the fundamental value of the photos themselves; all photo sharing apps have regressed into apps for artistic expression.

Until Snapchat, which has captured the essence of using photos as communication. Because it is completely ephemeral – and because the photos are deleted after 1-10 seconds – it’s impossible to use the photos for anything but communication. It’s an amazing app, and its popularity is just a hint of how I think we’ll use photos in the future.


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