If Instagram Stories launched in 2013, would it look like this?

screenshot of airbnb annoucning stories

Earlier this morning I saw a tweet announcing Airbnb stories. Youtube and a few others recently jumped on the story choo choo train too. It looks like “stories are the new news feed”. Videos show higher engagement and conversion rates. It’s the new norm. Everyone needs to post and consume video stories!

Text updates are too basic, long live the future of video!!!

But whenever I see these announcements, I flashback to 2013 and remember all the challenges startups faced when building video based digital products. We’re spoiled rotten now.

Six years ago I spent a ton of time thinking about the future of video.

How are consumers going to use and interact with personal videos? How do you capture emotion and share that with friends and family?

In this medium post I want to share some thoughts on the challenges builders faced, and my own version of “Instagram Stories” from 2013. Long before Snapchat and IG launched what everyone uses today.



In 2013, photo UGC (User Generated Content) was just taking off. Most web based services compressed images to just 640x480 in size (low image quality). Phone’s had limited storage, poor camera resolution, and lacked high speed cellphone network coverage. For startups, bandwidth and storage was very expensive. For small startups, it was capital intensive and just sucked.

The 2013 Landscape:

Instagram was fairly new and exclusive to iPhone. You could post photos and choose from a handful of filters. There was no video, direct messaging capabilities, explore, or ability to tag friends in photos. Android was unavailable and it was mostly early adopters. Just a handful of my personal friends had signed up. Early days. Snapchat was a chat application. Messages would disappear. There was no feed, videos, or group messages. It was used by teenagers, mostly using inexpensive phone with bad cameras.

Flickr was the preferred platform for sharing photographs. Youtube and Vimeo were the major video players. Mostly used by camera and video professionals.

Many startups were trying to figure out video broadcasting; creating a single video stream and broadcasting that stream across the world. A few startups were aggregating videos from Youtube + Vimeo, the biggest one being chill.com.

screenshot of chill.com back in 2013
Chill.com — aggregated content from vimeo and youtube.

It was early days for video. I was excited to explore new ways people could interact and engage with personal videos. I had a few different ideas but decided to work on a video-only platform called “Lets Watch It”.

screenshot of letswatch.it
The homepage for http://letswatch.it

What was I building?

Discover and create interactive video threads with friends and family.

In LWI, a collection of videos was a “video thread”. We wanted to replace text based facebook news feeds and VBB forums with a method for people to create, respond, and consume using just video. No more text based comments. Everything would be video based. It would surely be more engaging and interesting to share real videos with your face (even if it had food on it), emotion (laughter, crying, magic moments), and your surroundings? If people were forced to use video, they could attach videos, or record a video response. We felt this could encourage more thoughtful interactions with others humans? Especially with close friends and family.

An example video thread about an upcoming camping trip:

camping trip story thread
Pack your bags, we’re going camping with Boris, Master P, and yours truly!

At that time, I thought video threads (video threading) was pretty novel. Facebook wasn’t doing a very good job with comment threads and privacy/permissions.

We used the above screenshot as our first video thread for both a passive and interactive experience. Posting photos and videos on the internet was new. People were camera shy. I thought privacy was going to be the biggest factor for adoption.

lets watch it video clip settings lets watch it private video settings

Clearly, I was totally wrong. When it comes to video privacy, very few care. Everyone posts video content to IG, Snapchat, and Youtube with the end goal of reaching as many people as possible. Ease of use, mobile first, and large distribution was the biggest factors for wide spread adoption.


Video Threads

Start your own video thread by recording a video, sharing another video link, or sharing a website. Include a quick introduction of what and why it’s being shared. Respond with your own video.

create new share video thread lets watch it
Starting a video thread in Lets Watch It

Technology — Desktop vs Mobile

Why are all the screenshots desktop based? We figured desktop would be the best place to start. Android wasn’t an option because of inconsistent hardware camera quality. iPhones were the mobile first platform of choice. They had superior cameras, native video compression built into the OS, and distribution via the Apple App Store.

It came down to iOS vs Desktop? Regardless of platform, recording and serving video content was hard. Why? Buffering. Buff…er..innnng. CDN’s weren’t popular, 3G cell phone coverage, upload speeds, server side compression, etc..
We weren’t aggregating video, but wanted to offer users the ability to quickly create videos. What platform would have the lowest barrier for video creation? Without video creation, the entire product was dead.
It would be too difficult (expensive) to build both a mobile and desktop application. We needed to pick one, and decided on desktop.

A major key to Instagrams success was attributed to the upload photo process. Other services would start uploading photos once all information was provided (title, description, photo, sharing options, etc). Instagram did the opposite, photos would start uploading at the beginning of the process. Users didn’t feel the upload burden. Once they clicked post, it was already done.

But what about videos? They were huge. A five second video would require fast throughput, server storage, and a reliable internet connection for uploads. Uploading a 10 second video would take several minutes. Users didn’t want to wait. Mobile wasn’t ready yet. We focused on desktop, clearly a big mistake.

Do you guys remember flash? The desktop standard for watching and recording videos. It had it’s own set of technical challenges and is now all but dead (thanks Steve). We thought desktop and flash was the best path forward.

In a year, we can replace Flash with WebRTC.

record video with space bar
Recording video: hit spacebar to start and stop recording.

Smart TV Adoption

I experimented and even built a few social tv applications. Services that could be used with any smart screen, or internet enabled television. Samsung was paving the way, but every manufacturer was building their own developer ecosystem of “Smart TV Apps”. The equivalent of the Apple App Store. Hardware was a huge problem.

From those experiments, I concluded a browser based application would be the best path forward for early adoption for friends and family. We could start with desktop, and eventually transition to mobile. Samsung produced camera enabled televisions. We thought the living room with friends and family was the ultimate melting point for UGC. Looks like we were wrong. Your mobile phone was.


Video Threads To Replace Email and Text Messages?

We thought (and still think) Video Threads will replace text messages and email. Recording a video is faster and more personal. Especially if cameras are added to every part of your daily life — phones, computers, tvs, cars, bathrooms, kitchen, drones, etc..

Today, IG and Snapchat support stories with user and location tags. When will they add other attachments? Maybe videos will never replace text messages or email, or we’ll use a combination of different mediums? Voice services like Siri or Alexa could be a better fit?

video camping thread
reating a new video thread for friends + family. Attaching my fav waterpark and potential campsite for group discussion

Another big miss was around the video creation process. Text overlays and filters are huge part of the storytelling process. A huge part of the magic of video based UGC. We definitely missed that.


Closing

In the summer of 2013, I stopped working on LWI and we didn’t get past the design phase. Why? Youtube.

I didn’t see a way that we could compete against Youtube.

Snapchat and IG weren’t on my radar. I thought IG would stay true to photograph enthusiasts and wouldn’t participate in the video space. I thought Snapchat was a Whatsapp/Groupme competitor, a major thorn for telecommunication firms.

Youtube had the infrastructure, technical resources, userbase, and were starting to explore playlists and video replies. Youtube is doing just fine, but maybe they missed part of the mobile UGC revolution that IG and Snapchat captured?

The PDF Walk-through of Video Threads


Feedback

What do you think? Were you working on a video based product? If you had a hot-tub time machine, how would you launch stories in 2013? Would you do anything different than Snapchat and Instagram?