With the launch of the heavily-financed Path app late last night, and the explosion of interest in other photosharing apps such as Instagram and PicPlz, it seems the world is awash in such services. Why? There are some prosaic reasons — better cameras in the iPhone and other smartphones, for example, and the lack of usable (or at least appealing) offerings from established photo-sharing players such as Facebook, Flickr and Picasa. But the big reason is probably that photo sharing is (or at least can be) a great way to jump-start a broader social network.
That point was made by a series of high-profile venture capitalists in an interesting thread on the question-and-answer site Quora on Sunday night, following the highly-anticipated launch of Path, in response to the question “What explains the explosion in social photosharing entrepreneurial activity?” Several of those who responded noted that the iPhone camera has gotten substantially better — and angel investor Shervin Pishevar, who founded the Social Gaming Network, said we may not have seen anything yet: “Wait till Christmas hits. You thought you saw an explosion in growth so far,” he said, noting that the new iPod Touch, which has a camera, will “throw fuel on the fire.”
But in the answer that got the most votes, Simon Olson — a VC with Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Brazil — said that sharing photos is a core activity that can form the “base activity of the ‘social’ pyramid. Whether you are looking at Facebook or Orkut, etc., it is one of the most popular activities that users engage in on social networks. So, if you are going to start building a new ‘social’ platform, you want to start with one of the most popular activities.” Keith Rabois, chief operating officer at Square, made the same point on Twitter, saying photos are the “key wedge” in creating broader social networks.
The best example of this, of course, is Facebook. One of the things the company did early on — along with poking and other features such as status updates — was make it easy to share photos. For some people, that is one of the biggest reasons they use the site at all, and Facebook is by far the largest photo-hosting site on the Internet (one recent estimate was that more than 3 billion photos are uploaded every month). That, of course, makes it even more embarrassing that Yahoo has never really been able to take advantage of its ownership of Flickr, which was a pioneering photo-sharing service.
It’s no coincidence that both Flickr and Instagram started out being very different services — Flickr was originally an offshoot of an online role-playing game called The Game Neverending, and Instagram started its life as a location-based service called Burbn (which Andreeseen Horowitz invested in, and has since shifted its allegiance to PicPlz) — and then they shifted to doing photos. The interesting thing about Path is that the app has virtually no social features whatsoever: you can’t comment on photos, you can’t click to “like” them, you can’t tag them or share them with others through your other social networks.
Given its ruthless focus on making your circle of friends small and private, it seems likely that Path — which conspicuously calls itself “the personal network,” rather than “the personal network for photos” — is going after the opposite end of the spectrum from Facebook (where co-founder Dave Morin used to work) and intends to build a more private social graph around photos, rather than the massively public graph that Facebook represents. Whether Instagram and PicPlz, or other apps like DailyBooth, have similarly large ambitions remains to be seen. If they don’t already, they might want to consider it, because photo sharing by itself is notoriously difficult to monetize.
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