How Instagram Could Have Beat Facebook

They could have been a contender

When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion it seemed like a lot of money. Today, however, it’s estimated that Instagram is worth $100 billion. And that’s despite Facebook, not because of it. You can’t help but wonder what could have been if Instagram had said no.

The Curse Of The Valley

In the nineties and oughts, there was an Internet curse. If you said yes to this company, you would become a zombie. If you said, no, however, you’d become a unicorn.

That company was Yahoo.

Flickr and Tumblr said yes to Yahoo and became the walking dead, orphaned and rotting away. Facebook and Google said no, and went on to become huge.

Today there’s a new curse in the valley. That curse is Facebook.

If you say yes to Facebook, you’ll get rich and your company will live forever, but as a vampire. Condemned to bringing in the young blood that Facebook needs to survive. If you say no they’ll copy you and get the blood anyways. In that sense Facebook is no longer a curse, it’s a plague.

But it didn’t have to be this way. In 2012, Facebook was not the dominant force it is now. In fact, it has already begun to age. Snapchat and Instagram were attracting young users, and WhatsApp looked to do an end-run around social networking altogether. Facebook had gone from a place where cool college students hung out, to where their parents shared email forwards.

At this point, the old vampire could learn new tricks, or it could just make new vampires. So it put money on the table and made vampires out of Instagram and WhatsApp. It would have been a different world had they lived.

The Instagram That Never Was

Imagine, for a second, that Instagram says no to Facebook in 2012. This does do things. One, Facebook is unable to copy Instagram on its own. Without Instagram, Facebook is unable to copy Snapchat. Ergo, we end up in a very different world.

Instagram Would Have Survived

Why do I say that Facebook would be unable to copy Instagram? Well, Instagram was defined by what it was not. At the time, Instagram was not a place for wide photos, it was not a place for sharing rants, it was not a place for sharing text or video. It was defined by not.

Facebook, by contrast, was for anything and everything. Text, photos, videos, personal rants, public rants, whatever would feed the machine. Facebook could no more copy Instagram than a Swiss Army knife could cut a steak. I mean, it could, but it would suck. Facebook has also always, besides Messenger, failed at spinning out new apps.

While Facebook could have copied Instagram’s features, they could not have copied Instagram’s absence of features, which is why an independent Instagram would have survived.

Snapchat Could Have Thrived

Facebook didn’t kill Snapchat’s growth. Instagram did. Without Instagram, Facebook would have had no platform to assault Snapchat from. Yes, they could have copied vanishing stories, but where would they put it? Another blade on their Swiss Army knife? Who would notice, or care?

Without the Instagram platform, Facebook simply had no passport to the young, cool world that was Snapchat. Once acquired, Instagram was the vampire that brought them that blood. In that way, Facebook got two birds with one stone. They bought one youth market with Instagram and looked that to steal more of the youth market from Snapchat.

If the Instagram acquisition hadn’t happened, Snapchat could have thrived.

Instagram Could Have Beat Facebook

Instagram was 18 months old when it was acquired. It was a baby. In hindsight, you could say that they would have done this and that, but who knows? When Google and Facebook turned down acquisition offers they looked stupid at times, but they went on to great surprises. Who knows what surprises Instagram could have had in store?

Perhaps Instagram became the simpler advertising alternative to both Facebook and Google. Maybe they integrate e-commerce and start slinging everything from skinny tea to swimsuits to avocado toast directly. Perhaps they put this together into the holy grail of advertising — someone seeing an ad and buying the product instantly, from within the ad itself.

Instagram had low overhead (just 13 employees) and smart people. They could have thought of something, something that would have provided needed competition to a market that has collapsed into a monopoly. Today Facebook is peddling political lies and Google is devolving into paid search, largely because there isn’t a competition. But there could have been. It could have been Instagram.

And don’t forget the great variable of ‘who knows?’ Instagram could have been more than a competition to Facebook. They could have won.

The Instagram That Is

But they said yes. They got $300 million in cash, the rest in Facebook stock, and the alternate timeline ended. The co-founders left in 2018 and Instagram became Instagram By Facebook (For Anti-Trust Purposes). Instagram became attached to the Facebook advertising/surveillance machine, a vampire wandering Coachella.

Today Instagram is Facebook’s beard, their entry into the youth market that wouldn’t be caught dead on Facebook these days. It helped them battle Snapchat and to continue feeding young people to its data grinding machine. It helped prop up a company that is becoming increasingly dangerous and irresponsible every day, not to mention lame.

That’s the Instagram that is, and that’s where we are. It’s a shame. They could have been a contender.