Man, Was This Ever a Sad Day for Silicon Valley

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 20 2013 6:58 PM

Attack of the Clones

Instagram’s new feature is just a rehash of Vine—and another bad omen for Silicon Valley innovation.

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Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom announced a new video function for the app on Thursday.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I’ve sat through three big, super-secret, well-orchestrated Facebook press events in the last year. Or at least I think there were just three; they all kind of blend together, and there might have been one or two I didn’t attend due to previously scheduled dental work. But of the ones I remember, there was the time Facebook unveiled a new search engine. Another time, it redesigned the news feed. Oh, and then this one time, like two months ago, it launched a home screen app for Android phones. That event was in a big new auditorium at Facebook’s headquarters. I remember the housemade sushi being particularly delicious that day.

So they had another one of these things today. Small auditorium, couches, fancy coffee, ambient music—real intimate-like. (These guys are professionals.) As some had speculated, the event marked the launch of a new feature on Instagram, which Facebook purchased last year. The new feature is video. It’s neat: Now you can record video on Instagram. I wish I could say more, but that’s kind of it. When you update the app on your phone, you’ll find a Record button. To do video, hold that button down. You can capture multiple clips, but the total length of your video is capped at 15 seconds long. Why 15 seconds? Because Vine, the near-identical video app that Twitter launched in January, lets you record 6 seconds total, and Facebook wanted to do something 150 percent better.*

That’s a joke, but I worry it’s one Facebook takes seriously. In the past, I’ve praised Facebook’s talent for quickly, deftly stealing other people’s good ideas. It copied subscriptions from Twitter, automatic groups from Google Plus, check-ins from Foursquare, and created versions of Snapchat and (before purchasing it) Instagram. Nobody should be surprised that Facebook has now cloned Vine, too.

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And there’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve always believed that in tech, ideas matter less than execution. Apple didn’t invent the tablet, Google didn’t invent the search engine, and Facebook didn’t invent the social network. They all just did those things better than others. And if Instagram can do short, viral videos better than Vine—because it has a bigger audience already, or because it offer slight improvements like effects filters and image stabilization—then being second shouldn’t stop it.

On the other hand: Jesus, was this a sad day for Silicon Valley. Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder, is one of the smartest tech product guys in the business. I don’t doubt he’s proud of the fine work his team has done adding video to Instagram. But the bombastic naiveté with which he and Mark Zuckerberg announced an obvious, already-invented feature upgrade this morning brought me close to weeping for the state of innovation in today’s tech industry. “We’re just getting started,” Zuckerberg declared at kick-off, as if adding a Record button to a popular video app was the first step in creating a working cold fusion reactor. “This changes everything!” Systrom said after showing off the image stabilizer. His delivery was so stilted there were moments when I wondered if he believed anything he was saying. Systrom’s mouth was approximating Steve Jobsian reality-distortion poetry, but his eyes, I swear, were blinking out a hostage’s coded plea: “Get me out of here. Please.”

When Zuckerberg bought Instagram, he famously promised to let Systrom keep control of the popular app. By all accounts he’s kept his promise—the Instagram team stands apart at Facebook, aside from infinite server resources and lavish, big-company perks. Systrom’s loyalty to his team is great for Instagram’s users. But I wonder if it’s a good thing for Facebook, for innovation in the Valley, and for Systrom himself. Instagram is a rapidly growing community, but it is also a dead end for innovation. Its entire premise is to make an easy process—snapping and sharing images—even easier to do. That’s a fine goal, but at some point it will have refined that process to its essence. The fact that Instagram’s huge new feature is something that someone else has already done well suggests we’ve already reached Instagram’s cul-de-sac. Contra Zuckerberg, Instagram isn’t just getting started. Its work here is done. Now it needs to be passed off to a caretaker, not an inventor.

And Systrom ought to turn his mind to something else. No, I don’t know what. It would be nice if, rather than just come up with new interfaces to solve small, well-worn problems, more folks in the tech industry were thinking about bigger issues—ways to conserve energy, to make us healthier, to improve our political systems. I’m not trying to be a downer or calling for Systrom to do something he doesn’t want to do. But can he at least do something no one has done before?

It’s not just Systrom, and it’s not just Facebook. Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention. At its developer conference, one of Apple’s big announcements was a music-streaming service meant to catch up with Google, whose music streaming service—announced at its developer conference—was pretty much like Pandora or Rdio or Rhapsody. Last year Apple’s big thing was a mapping app, which—at best—will one day be as good as Google’s map app. Google recently announced a version of Evernote; meanwhile, at least a half dozen startups are looking to create RSS readers. And soon, I promise you, Yahoo will hold a big event to tell us how it’s completely, thoroughly reinvented email.

Yes, some people are doing big new things. Google Glass is a novel, risky innovation. Google Fiber, too. And Elon Musk—who runs Tesla when he’s not running SpaceX—can’t help but think big. But more often, the actually new stuff feels like the exception rather than the norm. These days, the sad status quo means slapping a new icon on a mobile app and proclaiming it to be the second coming.

Correction, June 20, 2013: This article originally misstated—in a joking reference—how much better than Vine that Facebook aimed to make Instagram. By increasing video length from 6 seconds to 15 seconds, Facebook makes Instagram 150 percent better, not 250 percent better. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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