By Evan Osnos, New Yorker
Last November, long before Facebook paid a billion dollars for Instagram—back when most of humanity had yet to hear about the photo-sharing app with a dozen employees—co-founder Kevin Systrom visited Beijing for a conference and had evident interest in China. As TechCrunch reported at the time, and Loretta Chao describes today in the wake of the Facebook deal, Systrom said Instagram was already getting a hundred thousand downloads a week in China—a place that has not been otherwise very friendly to social-networking sites washing in from abroad. The government has barred Facebook and Twitter, leaving the former to struggle in vain to enter the biggest market it has yet to access.
Instagram is running a Chinese-language version, and it’s already working with Sina Weibo, the hugely popular Chinese microblogging site, to let users post photos in their feeds. From the looks of it, it’s most popular in China for cityscapes, architectural pictures, and the sort of water-and-bridge scenes out of classical Chinese art—amped up, of course, by the app’s effects. So far it does not appear to have been censored—it doesn’t have a China office, and when its images end up on Weibo, then it’s up to Weibo to do the complicated business of self-censorship—so its future in China is a mystery. As it grows, it’s not clear if it will encounter what Twitter, Facebook, and others have discovered: the Chinese government treats foreign social-networking sites as a threat. Instagram has thrived by allowing people to share images with each other, tag them by location, and search for what they might have in common. In that sense, it’s the Facebook approach to photos; as Systrom said last month, “It’s Facebook-level engagement that we’re seeing.”
Loretta Chao, of the Wall Street Journal, asks today whether Instagram may give Facebook a foot in the door; people, for instance, could be in touch with each other on Instagram as long as Facebook is blocked. What happens, though, when the photos being swapped are of protests? Or Tibetans? Not clear how Instagram or the government will react. One thing is for sure: China is likely to become a topic of conversation in the new marriage, and watching Alexia Tsotsis’s TechCrunch interview, in which Systrom ponders the problem of censorship in China, is interesting in part because it’s the picture of a smart guy, in a whirlwind of a startup, beginning to make out the outlines of a very large puzzle: “I haven’t thought a lot about it,” he says.
Another Stanford grad—Sergey Brin—once puzzled over those problems for the first time, and they ended up being complicated enough that Google pulled its servers off the mainland rather than participate in Chinese censorship. For now, Systrom says, “It’s definitely a challenge to work well overseas, because you just have to play by different rules, and I think it’s up to the company and to decide whether or not you want to play by those rules and I wouldn’t claim to necessarily understand all of them just yet.”
I suspect he will before long.
Photograph by Keith Bedford/Bloomberg/Getty Images.