The Tough Problem for Glass

As you may have seen, there’s a new photo sharing app called Glass. You pay $5/mo or $30-$50 dollars a year to use the app. it has no ads, no tracking, and no mysterious algorithms. It’s a great looking app and has a lot of hype that was generated by some vood0o-genius marketing.

In a sense, the mood around Glass feels the same as Clubhouse a few months ago. Given Clubhouse’s spiral, that’s an ominous comparison to make, and I’m only making it because photo sharing apps are very hard to bootstrap. Especially paid apps.

Photo sharing apps are very hard to bootstrap. Especially paid apps.

Instagram works because it successfully caters to two groups:

  1. Casual consumers: people who mostly want to look at other people’s photos and videos while occasionally sharing something themselves.
  2. Photography pros: people who are promoting something. They’re promoting their own photography, their business, or products they share as influencers. They may not be trying to make money, but self-promotion is still promotion.1

To make a photo sharing community sustainable, any app that wants to compete with Instagram needs to successfully attract people from both groups.

If an app’s community is missing users from the casual consumer group and only has the photography pros, it ends up being a bunch of people who mostly only engage with other people’s photos because they’re either hoping for reciprocal engagement or they’re trying to get ideas for how to make their own photography more competitive. In short, without casual consumers, engagement solely from other photography pros will not be genuine, it will only be comparative and competitive.2

Without casual consumers, engagement solely from other photography pros will not be genuine, it will only be comparative and competitive.

On the other hand, if the community is missing people from the photography pro group, for starters, it won’t truly be a photography app. It may be another social network, and that’s fine, but here we’re specifically talking about photography apps. More importantly, it won’t work as a paid app. There are simply too many free alternatives. The model of paying for privacy and fair feeds with no algorithms has sadly failed over and over.

So, what’s to be done? What’s the alchemical concoction that will compete with Incumbentgram without sacrificing the privacy of its users and integrity of its founders?

The Solution

To succeed, Glass needs to be free and attractive to casual consumers while offering features compelling enough for photography pros to pay for. It’s a hard balance to strike and no one does it well right now. Flickr is probably the closest, but they seem to have given up on being anything other than a niche community for photographers.

Casual consumers almost certainly won’t pay $50/year for Glass when they can use Instagram for free.

If I was a product manager at Glass, I’d focus on attracting users in the casual consumer group. I’d make their experience viewing, discovering, and sharing of photos excellent and free. Glass currently has no #hashtags or categories of any type and has no location based discovery features. Finding photography that appeals to your tastes is currently much too difficult.

I’d also focus on providing an experience for photography pros that’s good enough to pay for. An experience that showcases their work beautifully (luckily, Glass already does this) and gives them tools to successfully promote themselves to the niche audiences that are looking for the type of content they provide.

It’s tough to do that without going the Instagram way where pros have to either pay for views or blindly struggle to reverse-engineer the ever-changing algorithm but I think it can be done.

Glass doesn’t need to offer premium placement or algorithmically controlled feeds. Instead it can offer photography pros paid tools to enable them to compete among each other for the views of casual consumers in a free-market type environment. Not everyone will win all the time, but if pros sense that the competitive environment is fair and unbiased, the community will grow and pros will be willing to pay for it.

I don’t know if that’s what Glass is going for. Maybe they have a different vision or different goals and would find all this silly and completely missing the point. My response to that would be that in order for the business to be sustainable, this is The Way.

I hope Glass succeeds, but from what I’ve seen so far, I feel they need to make some changes to stay relevant and competitive. Today photography pros are joining Glass because with Instagram’s shift to video, they’re feeling the pressure to find what’s next. But this endless loop of competitive self-promotion can only last so long before good photographers realize that they can’t build a truly engaged audience on Glass.

1 You may be tempted to disagree with this simplistic dichotomy, but the fact is, high level photography is a commercial endeavor. Good photographs are expensive and time consuming to make. There will always be people (like me) who just want to share their photos and not make any money, but with the amount of time and equipment photographers have invested into gear and travel, good photographers are almost always promoting something.

2 This is, in some ways, where Flickr is now. There are some genuine communities on Flickr, but for the most part, it’s primarily populated by people who think of themselves as “photographers,” with very few photography aficionados. It’s closed and stagnant.

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