Instagram and Value Judgements

As we move to the end of the Instagram acquisition hype cycle, I am especially discouraged by the overall tone of the conversation.  In the press, on Twitter, and in communities like Hacker News, I’m struck by the broad value judgements thrown out, debated, and repeated ad nasuem.

Perhaps this frustration comes from the fact that I’m currently re-reading one of my all time favorite books, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.  Context switching between a book that begins as beautifully and simply as:

And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good—
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

And blog posts with breathless titles like “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick”  or “From 0 To $1 Billion In Two Years: Instagram’s Rose-Tinted Ride To Glory” is bound to be frustrating (and perhaps a good argument for ignoring the hype cycle altogether).

Early in “Zen”, the divide between classical and romantic modes of thought is studied in-depth. The classical tends to focus on underlying form (“how does a motorcycle work”), while the romantic cares more about intangibles; feelings rather than facts. (“how do you feel while riding a motorcycle?”)

Interestingly enough, I’ve seen that much of the Instagram cheerleading and criticism has aligned along these two modes of thought.  The cheerleaders largely focus on the romantic aspects of the company:  a strong, engaged community.  Beautiful and simple product.  The tremendous narrative of so much value being created in so little time.

The critics largely focus on a classical analysis:  no world changing technology was created.  There was no business model or revenue.  The fact that SpaceX was able to build an entirely new space vehicle for less than it cost to buy Instagram.

Quite simply, neither of these modes of thought fully captures the objective quality of Instagram.  Both approaches lead to value judgements rather than actual analysis.  Commenters on Hacker News use phrases like “cheesy filters” and “cat pictures” to deride the acquisition.  Tech pundits hype valuations and talk of an “overnight success”.  Both approaches rely on a particular mode of discourse, which precludes any actual discussion of quality.

So many labels.  So many soundbites.  I’m reminded of a particular line from “Zen”:

If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.

Is there anything to solve in the Instagram story?

A small team worked hard to build a product they loved.  Great investors like Ben Horowitz supported them.  A network of passionate users evangelized the hell out of the product.  And finally, an individual much smarter than me unilaterally risked 1% of his $100 billion company to acquire them.

That is all.

Would I ever seek to build a company like Instagram?  Probably not.

Does this story affect my own desired career arc or ambitions?  Not at all.

Should it have any effect on yours?  I would certainly hope not.

So why don’t we all stop making useless value judgements, and start building quality and value of our own?


  • http://cjroth.com Chris Roth

    Nicely said. People have a difficult time comprehending the fact that something simple can create value.

  • http://twitter.com/tubbo Tom

    Mark Zuckerberg is NO SMARTER than you. He just happened to think of and execute the right idea at exactly the right time in history. Perhaps he’s luckier, but definitely not smarter.

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