Hands on with Instagram.com

For the entirety of its two-plus years of existence, Instagram has been a mobile concern. The photo-sharing social network got its start on iOS and eventually fanned out to Android, as users built of a network of friends who liked to take, edit, and share photos from their mobile devices. Sure, there was an website, but that functioned as little more than a home for app information.

That’s changed all of a sudden. Instagram.com is no longer a gateway to a mobile app, but is a social networking website, allowing you to view your friends’s photos from within a browser. And it’s hard not to see the influence of new owner Facebook, which bought Instagram last year, in this latest maneuver.

But the why of Instagram’s new Web presence is only so interesting: What really matters is the experience itself. I took the new website for a spin to see how the new site differs from the mobile app I use daily.

A mobile feel

The first thing I noticed about Instagram.com was how organic and mobile it feels. Despite Facebook’s ownership and presumed role in developing the site, it feels decidedly Instagrammy in every way. I would go so far as to say that you almost forget you’re viewing your photo feed from within a Web browser.

After you log in, Instagram.com becomes a full-sized view of your Instagram feed. Your friend’s images line up, and you navigate the feed from top to bottom—just as you would in the mobile app. To view a photo in isolation, you have to click on the ellipses (…) on the bottom right of an image. This tool will give you the option to report an image (or delete if it is your own) or open the photo in a new tab. From there, you can copy the image’s URL to share the photo via email or social network. To view a user’s page, you just click on their name from the feed.

Click on the ellipses in the lower right corner, and Instagram.com gives you several options for sharing an image.

Instagram.com has most of the basic functionality of the popular photo-sharing app—you can follow users as well as like and comment on photos. Still, some features remain the exclusive property of the mobile experience.

Missing pieces

While it’s nice to be able to type comments on a physical keyboard and nothing beats viewing photos on a larger screen, there are four major aspects of the Instagram app that are completely missing from Instagram.com.

First of all, Instagram.com does not provide any support for hashtag navigation—a huge feature that holds a prominent place in the mobile application. Instagram’s hashtags hold millions of photographs and allow for easy browsing of different themes. You can see hashtags on the website; just don’t expect to be able to click them to jump to similar photos. By not being able to browse by hashtags on Instagram.com, users cannot enjoy Instagram at its best.

You can see hashtags on Instagram.com, but you can’t browse for other photos using them like you would in the mobile app.

On top of not allowing hashtag browsing, Instagram.com has no search feature. This is a major setback for people like me who are constantly looking for the next great mobile photographer.

Notifications also appear to be missing from Instagram on the Web. While the webpage will tell you if a friend has uploaded a new photo, it will not let you know if someone has liked or commented on one of your photos.

Instagram.com’s notifications let you know if friends have uploaded new photos, but not if anyone’s commented on your images. (Click to enlarge.)

But Instagram.com’s most notable missing feature is its inability to load photos. That’s in keeping with founder Kevin Systrom’s insistence that Instagram is “about producing photos on the go, in the real world, in realtime.” Instead of turning Instagram.com into a Flickr or 500px, Systrom and his team have turned the site into a desktop viewing platform for the mobile app.

Easier maintenance

Instagram.com offers plenty of management tools for your account. (Click to enlarge.)

For folks who manage multiple Instagram accounts or who have difficulty keeping tabs on their feed, Instagram.com offers a little bit of help. The obvious benefits of a full-sized physical keyboard make commenting a lot easier, but the ability to edit your profile from just a couple of clicks allows for much smoother account management.

Some mobile photographers use their Instagram account like a curated gallery of work. At the Macworld/iWorld event for Mobile Masters last week, for example, multiple iPhonographers emphasized the importance of only posting your best work on Instagram instead of using it for every little observation. For me, the ability to view and delete my unwanted Instagram photos from a website makes thinning out my feed much easier.

Instagram.com also has simple badge creation so users of the service can easily imbed a link to their account on their personal website. Users can also manage which applications have access to their Instagram accounts and revoke access to those that they do not recognize or need.

What’s next?

While it’s much cleaner and easier to use than Instagram hosts like Webstagram, Instagram.com is not yet going to be an always-open social networking tab on my browser. Even though I can understand the intentional limitations of mobile-only image uploading, there are still too many things missing from the website version. Instagram needs to allow for online notifications as well as hashtag browsing and searching before it can compete with Webstagram and others.

That said, it’s nice to see such a sleek, ad-free website from a service that was expected to be Facebook-ized long ago.

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