Are photos a secret ingredient of the internet economy?

KodakBuildingI’ve been asking myself the big question: “Why did FB buy What’sApp for $19 billion?”

I know I am late to the party.  But surely this puzzle is still a puzzle even if the buzz(le) has moved on.

For me, there are four answers.

1) Facebook was trying to stay in touch with its early adopters, specifically young people who are now migrating away from Facebook at speed.  Early adopters are early warning.  Where they go, the world will follow.

2) Facebook was attempting to disrupt a disrupter.  Mark Zuckerberg has read his Clay Christensen.  He doesn’t want to suffer the fate of Friendster.  WhatsApp looked like the future.  So he bought it.

3)  The third answer has to do with the power of photos. Whatsapp users send 600 million photos every day.  (http://news.yahoo.com/whatsapp-19-billion-bet-facebook-053029423–finance.html)  And Facebook knows what this means. Chris Hughes, a FB founder, thought that photos could make FB “sticky” and discovered that they made it positively magnetic.  (Photos may be the biggest reason Facebook didn’t drop from view like Friendster.)

4)  The fourth answer turns on the mysterious properties of the photograph.  (This is a topic dear to my heart.  I did research for Kodak in the US, Europe and Asia.)

We tend to think that photos matter because they are a record of the world.  But this is only the necessary condition of their significance.  The reason they really matter is that they are the single, smallest, richest, cheapest, easiest token of value and meaning online.  We mint them.  We trade them.  We accumulate them.  We treasure them.

Individually, photos are content coursing through our personal “economies.”  They are the single most efficient way to build and sustain our social networks.  We gift people with photos.  They reciprocate.  Hey, presto, a social world emerges.

Collectively, photos create a currency exchange.  They are a secret machine for seeing, sharing, stapling, opening, sustaining and making relationships.  Want to know where networks are going?  See who is giving what to whom, in the photo department.  Photos are in constant flight.  They are a kind of complex adaptive system out of which some of our social order comes.

Why did Zuckerberg pay $19 billion for Whatsapp?  He was following the photos, that secret ingredient of the internet economy.

3 thoughts on “Are photos a secret ingredient of the internet economy?”

  1. Another reason for Facebook to buy WhatsApp is that it has a strong presence in emerging countries. I had never heard of WhatsApp until I was traveling in India where everybody was using it. Since Facebook has saturated mature markets (everybody has joined or chosen not to join), they need users in emerging countries to drive user growth.

    Your take on photos as “the single, smallest, richest, cheapest, easiest token of value and meaning online” is interesting to me. I joined Line recently for group chat while on vacation with friends. And a big component of Line is stickers – cute little clip art used in chat. And I didn’t understand why anybody used stickers (or would pay money for stickers, which is a big revenue source for Line). But I could see stickers as “tokens of value and meaning online” that are even less work since it does not even require production, just selection. I’d love to get your take on the stickers phenomenon at some point.

    1. Eric, thanks! great to hear your voice. Didn’t know about the international face of WhatsApp. V. interesting. Yes, stickers have an interesting value in certain economies. And of course because they appear to be so frivolous, no one has studied them. As you say, they are even smaller, faster, easier, cheaper than photos (which throws my “the single, smallest” claim in the post into doubt) and I think they have the additional value that they can communicate potentially provocative sentiments and messages in a medium so “little” and “unthreatening” that they allow us to say in stickers what we won’t dare say in speech. Thanks again and the useful (ever so delicate) reproach. Best, Grant

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