Instagram Update is a Big Win For Photo Discovery

Version 3.0 of the world's fastest-growing photo-sharing app went live on Thursday. Instagram's newest update goes beyond filters and cosmetic changes and puts a renewed focus on geolocation. In the process, it makes photos more discoverable and the app more addictive. 

The update's key new feature is called Photo Maps. It's exactly what it sounds like: Turn it on, and you get an extension of your profile that lays out your geo-tagged photos on a map of the globe. 

How Geolocation Helps Social Content Discovery 

Geoocation has been a buzzword for years, but for Instagram it has always lurked quietly in background. If a user geo-tagged a photo, you could tap the location's name and view a crowdsourced album of all photos taken at that location. This was an interesting feature, but it always felt like an afterthought. With Photo Maps, Instagram reemphasizes location, pulling what used to be a secondary data point out from the depths of the service and putting it front and center. 

In doing so, Instagram changes the way people browse each other's profiles and discover photos on the service. Previously, the primary way to view one's images was in reverse chronological order. Instagram photos, like tweets, got buried with time and you could view them only if you were curious enough to scroll manually back to earlier days. (This is easier now, thanks to the new version's infinite scrolling.) Remember how Facebook's Timeline resurfaced old status updates and wall posts? This is a bit like that, but it's based on geography rather than the passage of time. The photos you Instagrammed on vacation last summer - when the service's user base was a fraction of what it is today - suddenly have a new life. 

The location data included in each photo is very precise. Last December, I spent the holidays with family in Bedford, Massachusetts. On my Instagram Photo Map, a cluster of images floats far north of Philadelphia and New York, where I take the majority of my pictures. When I tap on the Massachusetts cluster - an interaction thoughtfully designed to be slick and fluid - I can see a sub-cluster of photos taken at my brother's house, a photo I took while I was out for a run one afternoon, and a photo I snapped at the supermarket down the street. Each one is pinned to the map in the exact location the photo was taken, right down to the square yard. 

Of course, this precision raises possible privacy issues. Instagram is aware of this issue. Before activating Photo Map, the app lets you deselect some photos. This is a useful security feature that can be used to untag photos taken at your own house, for example. 

This Would Look Great on an iPad

The new Photo Map user interface is very nicely designed, as is the new user profile template that comes with it. But you know where this type of UI would look even better? On tablets. Sure, the iPhone version doesn't look bad on the iPad's 10-inch screen, but the additional screen real estate offers so many opportunities from a design perspective.

There hasn't been too much noise about an official iPad app from Instagram, perhaps because people were too busy clamoring for an Android version and subsequently blown away by Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of the company. But now that Instagram has a giant parent company and more resources, a tablet-specific version would make sense. If Instagram does launch a version of the app for bigger screens, Photo Map would be right at home.