Instagram Introduces ‘Web Profiles’ That Look A Lot Like Facebook

Are Facebook and Twitter preparing to square off over image sharing?

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Instagram, the popular smartphone app that allows users to edit, share and comment on each other’s photos, is officially taking its first tentative steps into the non-mobile web. The social network startup that was acquired by social media giant Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) in April for $1 billion announced Monday that it is creating a way for users to show off their Instagram photos on a Web page.

“You’ve asked for Instagram on the Web and we’ve listened,” the company’s statement began. “Over the next few days, we’ll be rolling out Instagram profiles on the Web!”

Previously, Instagram operated almost entirely in its self-contained mobile ecosystem. Users could post their images to other social networks in which they participated such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, but nearly all of the information about a particular user, including their full inventory of pictures, was centralized in the mobile app alone. The casual Instagram user could not search for another user’s information on their laptop or desktop, for instance -- something that lent the service an air of privacy, or at least communal solidarity, that Twitter or Facebook rarely if ever offered.

“We’re launching Web profiles to give you a simple way to share your photos with more people and to make it easier to discover new users on the Web,” the statement added.

The new online profiles therefore explode the visibility of the average Instagram user. The statement notes that all users who don’t have their accounts set to private will now have all of their images available to, essentially, anyone who wants to visit Instagram’s website.

"You do not have to be an Instagram user to view a public user’s profile on the Web," Instagram said in its blog post.

If a user’s profile is already set to be private, the company said only logged-in users with permission to follow the user will be able to see his or her pictures.

Despite the transition away from mobile, users won’t be able to simply upload images from their computers to post to their accounts -- a practice that, unlike the Web profiles themselves, Instagram feared would compromise the fundamental identity of the service.

"Instagram is focused on the production of photos from mobile devices so users are not currently able to upload from the Web," Instagram said. "We're excited about how Web Profiles will make it easier to browse and share content on the Web for all our users."

When Instagram was purchased by Facebook, critics have wondered how the bold acquisition would influence the small startup (at the time of the purchase, after all, Instagram only had 13 employees). Ever since the social network was launched in 2010, it had found a way to rest comfortably between distinct and potentially feuding social media environments.

Last November, for instance, Instagram started letting users label their pictures with hashtags -- a feature commonly associated with Twitter. The company even admitted that the featured worked “similarly to Twitter hashtags,” but insisted that they were “reinvented from the perspective of an Instagram user.”

But alongside the Twitter-esque feature, Instagram also allowed users to “like” one another’s photos and comment on images at great length -- a characteristic much more akin to Facebook.

The new Instagram web profiles, however, look almost exactly like Facebook profiles except with less information and a sleeker design. Reports on the initial acquisition by Facebook questioned how much of a role Facebook would play in shaping its younger social media sibling’s growth; Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told CNN at the time, "We're pretty focused on remaining an independent company right now."

If any doubt still remained about the service’s future direction, the Web profiles put Instagram firmly in Facebook’s camp. Twitter is now facing rumors that it is planning to introduce its own photo filter service, no doubt sensing the potential for future exclusive restrictions placed on Facebook’s younger sibling.

Speaking at GigaOM’s Road Map conference in San Francisco on Monday, Systrom dismissed any concerns about the competing service.

"I don't think that in any way threatens Instagram because Instagram is a community and not a filter app," Systrom said of Twitter’s rumored attempt.

Facebook stock rose slightly during trading Monday, closing at $21.25 per share.

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