LogosThis week Twitter, Instagram and Flickr updated their apps and subtly changed the way their services work. I’ve been discussing this with the other Muses, and also with my husband Tom, who covers technology at The Economist magazine. I thought the best way to explain it would be to do a Q&A with him.

Kirstin: Tom, you know about this stuff. What’s going on with all these rival photo apps this week?
Tom: It’s war! Well, it’s war between Instagram and Twitter in particular, though Flickr has stuck its oar in as well. But let’s start with Instagram and Twitter. They used to get along just fine. You could cross-post Instagram pictures to Twitter easily, and you could also import your Twitter contacts into Instagram. So if you were a Twitter user, you could quickly see which of your contacts were on Instagram and then follow them. Very handy.

Kirstin: So what went wrong? Why are they fighting?
Tom: What went wrong was that when Facebook bought Instagram earlier this year, for more than $700 million, Instagram was no longer a neutral party. Suddenly it was part of Facebook, which worried Twitter. And the ability to import your Twitter contacts into Instagram meant you were really importing your Twitter contacts into part of Facebook. So Twitter shut it down, preventing the Instagram app from accessing Twitter’s friendship database, or social graph. That was back in July.

This week Instagram retaliated by turning off the ability to see Instagram pictures in Twitter streams. Until last Monday, when someone tweeted an Instagram pic, you could see it directly in the Twitter app, or on the Twitter website by clicking “View photo”. This ability to see previews of content in your Twitter stream is something Twitter has been moving towards. It actually makes Twitter a bit more like Facebook. Instead of just seeing a link to a newspaper article or blog post, for example, you see a little headline and pitcure and summary, just like you do on Facebook, provided content providers set up their sites to support something called Twitter “cards”. This week Instagram stopped supporting Twitter cards for its images, so they stopped showing up in Twitter streams. Instead, you have to click through to Instagram’s own site in order to Like or comment on an image.

Instagram says this is better for users. Their CEO, Kevin Systrom, called it “an evolution of where we want links to our content to go”, which is interesting. Note that he says “our content”, implying that he owns it — when in fact it all comes from users. Anyway, the idea is that Instagram can provide a better experience on its own site because you can see other people’s comments and so on. What’s really happening is that they want to make sure people comment on Instagram, not on Twitter. They want the traffic and the page views, because eventually they want to put ads on Instagram. So they don’t want Instagram images being piped into Twitter, and people viewing them there. For its part Twitter, which will probably float on the stockmarket next year, is also trying to maximise the amount of activity that happens on its website and inside its apps. Their CEO, Dick Costolo, denied that they are planning a flotation when I asked him about it earlier this year, but that’s what CEOs always say, up to the moment that they announce it!

So that’s the basic source of the conflict. Both of these firms want to make money, and to do that they want to hold on to their users as tightly as possible. They want you to spend as long as possible using their apps and their websites. They don’t want anyone else to benefit from the data they have gathered. Twitter doesn’t want Instagram to take advantage of its social graph, and Instagram doesn’t want Twitter to take advantage of its billions of photos. So they’re putting up these walls to keep the data in. It makes sense for them, but it’s annoying for users because it restricts what we can do.

Kirstin: Why did Twitter add those filters to its app? That’s new.
Tom: By doing that I think Twitter is trying to suggest that, hey, you don’t really need Instagram anyway. If you want to share vintage-looking photos with your friends, you can do it all on Twitter! Of course people already have their whole networks of friends on Instagram, so that seems unlikely to work. Instagram is already a huge community. But photo sharing is obviously a very popular activity, which is why Facebook bought Instagram — to stop anyone else buying it. Twitter’s response is to beef up its own photo-sharing features so it can compete a bit better. Some of its ideas are quite cool, actually, like the way you pick photos from the Camera Roll. Then Instagram beefed up its own app too — the camera is much better. So we’ve had this back and forth going on.

Kirstin: What about Flickr?
Tom: Yes, it’s interesting that Flickr has waded in this week as well. Its new app is really impressive, and clearly owes a debt to Instagram. Inevitably, it lets you add filters to photos. What’s more interesting is that it shows that Flickr understands the new “mobile first” reality. Anything you can do on Flickr, you can now do through the app. Next year the number of smartphones and tablets in use will overtake the number of desktop and laptop PCs for the first time. So having long been a poor relation of the “proper” Internet, mobile is becoming the main way that people do lots of things. Instagram understood that and was originally a mobile-only service, though it now has a website too and is being tied into Facebook ever more closely. If only Flickr had produced this app a year ago, it might have stolen some of Instagram’s thunder. It’s interesting to compare it with Hipstamatic, which spent a whole year trying to figure out what it could do apart from just copying Instagram. Flickr was already a social network so making its app more Instagram-like was an obvious thing to do. But they took their time!

Kirstin: What does all this fighting mean for us, the users?
Tom: Well, it’s a good thing in some ways, because they’re all trying to outdo each other so they’re adding new features that weren’t there before. But it’s also a bad thing, because the rivalry between them also means that they are restricting what you can do and putting up walls to try to keep you inside their particular services. All these features appearing and disappearing in the apps are the outward manifestations of the fight between these companies. It’s interesting that Flickr, as well as releasing a new app, has just started supporting Twitter cards. So you can see Flickr images in Twitter streams. Evidently Flickr reckons that, being much smaller than Instagram, it will gain rather than lose by playing nice with Twitter. But it may also be because Flickr has a different business model: it gets revenue from users directly, by charging Pro users, as well as from advertising. I’m afraid we just have to get used to the idea that social networks that rely solely on advertising, like Facebook or Twitter, are going to be prepared to remove features in order to maximise their ability to show ads. At the end of the day they want to make money, so they’ll do what makes business sense for them, even if that means that they sometimes annoy users.

Kirstin: Thank you, Tom!