Instagram Takes Its (Twitter) Cards Off the Table

Photo-sharing app's move aims to promote Web presence

No need to check your eyeglasses prescription—that’s not the reason Instagram photos are looking weird on Twitter. The photo-sharing app cut off its integration with Twitter Cards, technology introduced by the social network over the summer that expands a 140-character tweet to display an accompanying link’s photo, video or article headline.

“I think this is just an evolution of where we are and where we want links to our content to go,” said Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom when discussing the change today at LeWeb conference in Paris.

Given that Facebook acquired Instagram in April, the move could be seen as icing relations between Facebook and Twitter. But Facebook is perhaps only tangentially to blame in that the acquisition meant Instagram could staff up a team to work on its Web presence, which the change was designed to promote. Systrom made clear that users will still be able to tweet their Instagram photos—though now all that will do is send a link users have to click on in order to see the photo, instead of displaying it right in the tweet. That seems the point.

“When Twitter added Cards, we had a very minimal Web presence,” he said, adding that "because of that [newly expanded Web presence, which now includes users’ profiles, photos and the ability to interact as in the Instagram mobile app] we wanted to direct users to where that content lives originally to make sure that users on Instagram get the full experience of Instagram.”

Twitter has long been a content distribution vehicle for media outlets, marketers, celebrities, etc. With the introduction of Twitter Cards, the company incrementally expanded its role. Before, it was incumbent upon a user—be it a reporter, brand or entertainer—to compile 140 characters intriguing enough entice someone to click on an obscure short-link and visit the corresponding page. Curiosity could have played in the user’s favor, but any potential ambiguity could also introduce enough friction to dissuade someone from clicking. Twitter Cards removed a step. Instead of a tweet that was written “I can’t believe this,” Cards would expand that tweet to show that what the person can’t believe is, for example, a YouTube video of a Blake Griffin dunk.

That seems like a win for all involved, particularly for Twitter. If a user could view a photo or view within his or her Twitter stream, why click through to the site? That’s less the case for articles whose headline and first sentence or two could be enough to attract eyeballs, but could be enough to satiate some users. Nonetheless, it could be problematic for media companies that rely on users viewing content on their sites in order to generate ad revenue. Twitter Cards make tweeted content easier to consume; the only question is where to consume it?

Systrom acknowledged as much. “Really it’s just about where do you go to consume that image, where do you go to interact with that image? And we want that to be on because we believe that’s a better user experience currently,” Systrom said.

The potential of Twitter Cards is that it wouldn’t be relegated to a content snippet, but could wrap an entire piece of content within the tweet stream. Users would stay on Twitter longer because it had become an uber-portal. That would leave media companies to decide whether to make their content available that way or find ways to cut it off as they did with RSS feeds. While arguably worse for Twitter users, Instagram seems to have taken the latter option.