Power to the people

This is why you should start an IGTV channel right now

Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram: "Among all the cat videos and everything else, where are the creators?"

That meh youtuber has just embarked on his own podcast show — which is kinda odd since he’s not particularly good at asking questions. Not so far from there, that fake-it-til-you-make-it entrepreneur keeps selling Alexa as the new treasure trove — which it kinda is, but that’s an article for another day. If all of it sounds familiar, it’s because that “pivot to audio” fetish really deserved the hype.

But just when we’re about to buy it, Instagram reeled us in to revisit an old acquaintance: pivot to (vertical) video. Yes, again. Yes, if you have the goodness to go back. Thanks.

Last Wednesday, Instagram set the stage for two announcements. First, it now has 1 billion active users. Second, it is launching a YouTube rival (which is the definition you get when your news source is too lazy to explain).

Instagram’s IGTV is a new platform for watching long-form videos through a standalone app that also has a tab inside Instagram itself. The underlying narrative behind the apparent confusion is actually a disturbing combination of strengths and weaknesses (and what makes the product appealing): if you ARE already a content creator, here’s all of your Instagram followers so you DON’T HAVE to start from scratch; if you want TO BE a content creator, here’s a new platform with 1 billion users, so you CAN start from scratch.

During the last few days youtubers, instagramers and noneoftheabovers intensively discussed IGTV. Will it be a sneak peek repository of YouTube videos? Will it reenact the Stories vs. Snapchat clash? Will it vanish in exile like Periscope? Who will get there first: audience without creators or creators without an audience? And of course, the real mortal sin disguised in doubt: should I bet on IGTV?

Good thing this last question has an effortless answer, which is yes, you should.

Although I can not see them, it is easy to sense some not-so-smiling faces divided in two categories:

“Nah, I already have thousands of subscribers on YouTube.”

“Nah, I only have 22 followers on Instagram.”

Group number 1, since there’s no polite way to stress this, I’ll toss you a number: 6.3 million subscribers. If YouTube star Marques Brownlee is willing to give IGTV a chance, get down from the virtual pedestal you built for yourself and go shoot-edit-post your first (vertical) video today. Nobody is too big to bypass a billion user emerging platform.

Group number 2, as tempting as it is to simply say “you have nothing to lose” (because with 22 Instagram followers you definitely have nothing to lose), think of IGTV as an algorithmic irony: 1 billion is the same number of times all aspiring digital influencers wished they had started a YouTube channel five years ago.

One of the most complex equations about social media business is the power-to-the-people strategy — there’s usually more of a suggestion than actual control. YouTube, for example, is a 1.8 billion user ecosystem with few superstars — there are 4,400 channels above the 1.5 million subscribers mark. Facebook, on the other hand, is a 2.2 billion user ecosystem — same vast audience — , but with “zero” superstars; or, if you prefer, where everybody is a star (ok, there are some sizable fan pages out there, but they’re more like message boards than a place loaded with original content).

Interestingly, Instagram is a bit of both. The company managed to build an ecosystem where everybody is a star (your dog, your baby, your dessert are the Shakiras of your world), just like Facebook, but there is also a group of influencers to follow (or “subscribe to”), as with YouTube.

However, there’s a catch. On Instagram, this power-to-the-people movement — the ability to raise regular people to stardom, or at least to embolden them to walk in this direction — is slow and tricky. Of the top 100 accounts, only three — and I’m feeling generous — belong to stars that gained popularity on the platform (actually, two of them got it from Vine, but, as I said, I am feeling generous). The other 97 were already famous. On YouTube this ratio is more like 75–25 instead of 97–3.

One of the missions here is to act like a bridging mechanism, which may lead to a more democratic proportion.

It is not because of chance that every other social media company either fails or agonizes from time to time, it’s pretty much the power-to-the-people dynamics.

There’s a reason why Snapchat is the most obvious example, because it’s a good one. The company spent so much time trying to pet traditional media that it left creators behind — naturally, one by one, creators ended up leaving. It is highly unlikely that IGTV will make the same mistake.

The process to enlighten the path to new(and old)comers and keep them on the platform may look winding but it comes down to a clear-cut power-trio: stats (views, likes and comments), discovering and monetization.

On launch day, Instagram didn’t say a word about money, but it would be idiocy for the company not to embrace this course of action in the short term. Okay, in this business, acting dumb about social metrics is not exactly a rare phenomenon — check Spotify, neglecting its power as a social network, or Twitter, overestimating theirs, or even LinkedIn, fantasizing theirs — but in this case, to ignore monetization would be like scrimping on the basics to save money for the nonessential. As I said: dumb.

People tend to avoid tech predictions because they’re terrified of getting it wrong. And when someone takes a chance and looses, he or she usually invokes some sort of not-my-fault card that begins like this: “Do you remember when I said _______ about ______ and I was wrong?” No, pal, nobody does. Not even your family remembers that.

In honor of all the repressed wrong predictions, here’s mine. Two years from now, one of these two things will happen: either you will read a not-my-fault article “explaining” how Instagram ruined IGTV or you’ll be watching a video titled “Is it too late to start an IGTV channel?”

Oddly enough, the answer to that depends more on you than on me.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado