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June 15, 2012

Pictures, Or It Didn't Happen on Mobile

Foursquare made waves two weeks ago with the launch of their newest application, which more broadly emphasized recommendations, discovery and tips from friends than the original use of the app - a simple checkin, alongside the race for badges and mayorship as you traveled from place to place. Some sites called it the death of the checkin altogether, not wanting to miss an opportunity to be sensational.

But the application's refresh did more than take the focus of all my minor comings and goings. It made photos an even greater part of the experience, putting pressure on me, more than ever before, to include something visibly pleasing as part of the checkin. With the upgrade, Foursquare joins many other leading social apps that have rallied around photos as a major part of their approach to mobile.

Images from my Path and those from a friend.

Instagram's recent sale to Facebook for a gaudy $1 billion thrust them into the spotlight, as the photo sharing app had users preferring its emotion-grabbing images and filters to the standard fare seen on the largest social networks. Given Instagram's iOS-only approach during its early period, I'd never gravitated toward using it, but many embraced its simplicity - the presentation of photos, and encouragement of light social signals for friends to react.

In some ways, this is similar to the Path app, which initially made waves for going mobile only, and focusing on a 50-friend limit, when other networks let you friend freely into the thousands and tens of thousands. Their push for an intimate network, making every share a selective one, where you can see who has liked a moment, or even just seen it, puts more focus on the user to share something meaningful and personal, instead of the mundane.

Now that Path's on Android, and with people I respect, like Shak Khan (formerly of Spotify) and Dylan Casey (formerly a colleague at Google) on board, I've been using the app a lot more, even if it's just as a simple way to send high quality photos to Foursquare. It's been fun to tap into the casual photos and moments from those friends on Path and see things from their view, in color.

Now I Feel Guilty If I Check In Without a Photo, Even At Home

Of course, like Path, selective sharing has been a hallmark of Google+ since the network's launch a year ago. The idea of getting the opportunity to share the right content to the right people at the right time, parallel to that of how you share offline, has struck a chord for privacy-seeking individuals, families and groups. But it's also been a good showcase for photographers who want to bring the images to the world. Prominent camera slingers like Thomas Hawk and Trey Ratcliff had gained followings in the millions, and there was even a  conference in San Francisco for the Google+ Photographers community at the end of May.

On mobile, as many noted, the refresh of the Google+ app, first on iOS and quickly following on Android, made photos take center stage. Like Instagram, Path and Foursquare, the mobile app displays photos to the full width of one's screen, letting the images do the talking. While Google+ also is home for lengthy comment threads, and longer text-centric posts, if there is an image available to display in the post, it gets the headline, and everything else is below the fold.

Google+'s Mobile App Delivers Full Bleed Photos and Full Color

The move toward photo-centric experiences in social mobile apps is one that reflects a few things - that smartphones are increasingly capable of taking high quality images, but also having improved displays to bring pictures to life, that wireless download speeds can handle the increased demands of a photo-centric experience, unlike the days of WAP and text-only mobile sites, and that users love it when updates from friends come to life.

Facebook Also Pushes Large Images In Its Mobile App

Google's Chrome browser was famously named as a reverse expression of its qualities. Chrome referred to all the borders and features that surrounded the app's content. Chrome took them away, for the most part, going to the edges and trying to put the emphasis on the pixels inside the browser window. These apps, including Facebook, on the news feed and individual timelines, are doing the same - putting photos in the center of the experience, and encouraging lightweight social actions.

As many people are turning to social interactions with micro-updates and away from lengthy text-centric blogs, something beyond incredible prose has to catch one's attention, and it's becoming photos - from memes to LOLCats, Instagram, Path, Foursquare or others, you can see how the photos on mobile really have become as powerful as a thousand words.

Disclosures: I am a Google employee, and have worked closely with the team focused on Google+ Mobile. One can assume that in some way Facebook, Path, Foursquare, Instagram and others could compete with various aspects of Google's different products.