A friend of mine just returned from Cabo. On my newsfeed, there is an album called “Mexico! :)”. I click through "Mexico! :)” Ordinarily, I would be looking at: dolphins, beachfront toes, margarita with paper parasol, paisley bikini, Irish sunburn, more beachfront toes, hotel patio at sunset.

But today is not ordinarily. Today, I have spoken with a brand-new hire at a company called gazeMetrix. Today, I am looking at: Tecate, Ray-Ban, J. Crew, Diptyque, Rowdy Gentleman “Bless Your Heart and the USA” tank top, Havianas, Patron Silver, The Royal Playa del Carmen.

In 68 photos, I count 35 brands. These are just the ones with clearly visible logos.

gazeMetrix does what I just did, using computer vision and machine learning algorithms, for some of the biggest brands in the world. Right now, it only analyzes Instagram photos; soon it will analyze Twitter image-sharing services like Twitpic and Yfrog.

Facebook is one image-sharing service gazeMetrix isn’t planning to analyze. In a December interview with MIT Technology Review, gazeMetrix's founder Deborat Singh said this was because “so few of the network's publicly posted photos are user generated."

Singh’s reasoning offers a justification for the Instagram acquisition that I hadn't previously considered: most of the user-generated photos posted to it are public, and thus, are veritable data troves, ripe for the buying.

Which makes me wonder if, soon enough, Instagram will be the sole mechanism through which photos can be published on Facebook.

Because, think about the incentives for this! On the analytics side, gazeMetrix doesn't just count the number of times a brand appears in user-generated photos — it also serves up the photos, offers analysis on the brands' context within them, and monitors spikes in activity to predict when a brand is about to go viral. And on the content side, to paraphrase the GazeMetrix employee I spoke with: “You suddenly have thousands of ready-made ads.”

Basically, this stone delivers a heck of a lot of birds.

“But wait! Those are my photos! I thought Instagram amended its ToS in my favor!”

Yep, it did. Instagram will not sell your photos, but they will serve as agent, connecting the eager brand to the unaware evangelist.In the words of Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom:

We envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos & accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following.

That faint crumbling you hear is the blush of innocence departing the formerly unaware evangelist.

If you, like me, were or are an avid consumer of lifestyle blogs, you may have noticed increasing numbers of product reviews and giveaways and sponsored getaways. Lifestyle blogs started to really take off around 2004, and it didn't take long for brands to realize that hey, Ella here is already reviewing diapers of her own accord--why don't we send her some of ours to try, and more to give to her commenters. Perhaps this tactic will play out, but for now, it seems to be working.

Now, if instead of having to deal with shipping and plane tickets and publishing dates and stealing Anna Wintour's seat at fashion week, a brand manager could just republish a photograph, well, that would be a lot less headaches all-round. Especially if the photo's creator, like those shrewd mommy bloggers, has already realized the value of branded content.

And so, the dystopic, filter-bubble-phobic part of me sees a near-future landscape dominated by carefully constructed user-generated photos of sepia-toned road trippers tossing around coke bottles.

Which sounds exactly like the landscape of today, but trust me, it's going to feel, like, so much real-er.

L'authentique, c'est chic*.


*TM