The evolution of photo sharing from Kodak to #selfies

I felt like a proud grandma yesterday when a small and passionate team I worked with at Facebook launched the Moments App. The app is a simple, mobile product to share photos privately with a small group. Photo sharing has always been a hot topic in tech with seemingly endless stream of hits. From Flickr in the early 2000s to FB with its magical people tagging to Instagram and the latest Snapchat. It’s like the golden goose of Silicon Valley. AS the product lead for FB photos, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we evolved from physical albums to digital sharing.

Let’s start with why we take photos? The answer is that it’s a moment we want to remember and a story we want to sharing. Before the modern camera, our only capture device was “Art”. From cave paintings of a successful hunt to important historical battles to portraits of VIPs. The need to visualize important moments and tell stories is universal and well documented in human history.

Driving by an innate need to Remember and Share. We can categorize the biggest changes to photo sharing to 2 things:

  • Cost of capture (Hardware)
  • Ease of sharing (Software)

Cost of capture

There are 3 key events that significantly changed the cost of capture:

  • Birth of Analog cameras: 1889 was the birth of film based cameras. By the 1940s it became common place and reasonable to for every household to have a camera and capture everyday memories.
  • Analog to Digital: In the 1980s, digital cameras became a high end consumer item. By the year 2000, it replace the basic analog camera. Suddenly, photographers had instant feedback on their photos and you are only limited by the size of the memory card.
  • Smartphones: with the release of the first iPhone in 2007, the photography world experienced another dramatic change. A decent camera was now accessible on a device that you carry with you everywhere.

The impact these events had on the number of photos captured in the world is pretty clear. We have been experience exponential growth for almost 200 years and it’s not stopping. Best estimate is that today ~10B photos are captured every day and at least ~3B photos are shared via FB, IG, Whatsapp, Snapchat, etc.


Ease of sharing

Photos are still the most efficient unit of storytelling. In a single photo, you can extrapolate who, what, where, when, and why. With every step in the hardware and cost evolution for photography, there were opportunities for innovation that passionate entrepreneurs took advantage of. Most of these revolved around making it easier to share with a lot of people.

Step 1: Share with people who are not next to you.

With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s. Photos can now be shared with people who are not physically next to you! Flickr was a space for amateur and professional photographers to share beautiful images from around the world. It was also the first popular space where people had conversations around the photos and the stories they represented.

Step 2: Sharing focused on people.

Most of the photos taken in the world are of people. They capture birthday parties, dinners, babies and pets. They are personal. People care a lot more about photos of people they know than beautiful landscapes or artistic food porn. Facebook recognized this in 2005 and launched a photo sharing service made for people photos. It became the largest photos sharing product in the world in a year and a half. Then they launched people tagging in 2010 and cemented FB as the place for photos of people you care about.

Step 3: Mobile first and only

Instagram, Snapchat, and Whatsapp, some of the biggest consumer wins in the last 5 years all owe a big part of their success to putting photo sharing on mobile front and center in their product. There are two things all of these products did well:

  • Decrease quality bar for sharing — Snapchat did this by making the photos ephemeral, Whatsapp by limiting the audience with the nature of messaging, Instagram by giving you simple tools to jazz up a photo. These all made it not only OK but fun to share a million selfies.
a subset of my personal selfie collection
  • Realtime dopamine —every app on this list is designed to optimize for real time content and real time feedback. Share a moment and get feedback right away from friends and followers. The instant dopamine is addictive. The advent of seen states on smaller networks like Snapchat and Whatsapp is also a unique and interesting innovation in “feedback”. No more delays in downloading photos from camera, uploading and creating an album on FB.

What’s next?

I would start with matching use cases with audiences and see what’s missing. An example of this exercise would be to start with what’s known:

  • Instagram is for sharing your aspirational photos with a public audience
  • FB is for sharing stories of your life with everyone you know
  • Snapchat is for sharing silly everyday moments with your BFFs
  • Moments is for sharing lots of photos with the people you’re with
  • What are use cases that are not solved yet?

Remember especially as a startup, it has to be a frequent or important enough event to matter. Generally for a consumer product, we’re looking for daily use, although there are certainly utility or enterprise based problems in the photos space. One thing to watch out for: don’t design for the power user. This was something we struggled with on the photos team, we are all taking a million photos day, traveling the world and obsessed with keeping every photo safe. It naturally leads to product discussions around complex storytelling for big events like travel and wedding and how to solve the storage/search problem. These are not the biggest problems for an average consumer.

Also look out for technology disruption events like the digital camera and the smartphone. I’m personally keeping on eye on:

  • Video + Photos — is there tech whether it’s hardware or software that’ll merge the two mediums more seamlessly.
  • Wearables — would I capture more moments if I could do it with my Apple Watch or something like it instead of having to grab my phone?
  • VR — so much time and $$ being thrown into this space, when does this become mature enough for truly public adoption?

What do you guys think?

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