The experiment signals that Instagram may eventually wean itself off its current integration with location-based service Foursquare, which made a name for itself through social check-ins. Foursquare has more recently shifted toward trying to become what CEO Dennis Crowley calls the "location layer" for the internet. Third-party services such as Pinterest, Path, Twitter's Vine, and Yahoo's Flickr all use Foursquare's free API integration and expansive database of restaurants, bars, and other places to power their location services; even Uber, the car-on-demand startup, taps into Foursquare's data to help its drivers and passengers find an exact pickup location. Foursquare's database of venues is considered by many to be one of the freshest, updated incessantly by Foursquare's 45 million users and their billions of check-ins. Its integration with Instagram is often touted as an emblem that demonstrates why Foursquare's dataset is so valuable, but competitors—including Facebook, Google, and Yelp—are vying to prove that their own location data feeds are even more powerful.
To tag a location in an Instagram photo, users just have to tap a "name this location" button. A list of nearby venues pops up, along with a search engine, enabling users to tie their pictures to specific locations, whether for an outdoor shot taken in Central Park or a family photo snapped at the Eiffel Tower. Recently, however, Instagram has started toying with the idea of replacing Foursquare's integration with Facebook Places. As some Instagram users have noticed, Instagram has updated its app for a subset of its shutterbugs so that it now uses Facebook's Places' database instead of Foursquare's. "Wait, did Facebook just secretly stop using Foursquare's API for location services on Instagram and replace it with their mapping service?" Instagram user Guy Barnhart recently tweeted.
A spokesperson for Instagram indicated to Fast Company that it's not uncommon for the service to trial new features. "We are constantly testing experiences throughout the app to provide the best possible user experience as part of future planning," the representative said by email. The spokesperson added that "Foursquare is a great partner," and that users "will continue to be able to share their check-ins to Foursquare from Instagram," just as they can push Instagram content onto Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr.
But it's likely Facebook is wary of sharing Instagram's data with a potential competitor, especially when it could better serve one of Facebook's own properties. Instagram boasts more than 150 million users, who collectively upload tens of millions of photos each day. When these photos are tied to a location, they paint a comprehensive portrait of a venue and even reveal when that venue is most popular. If tons of Instagram photos are taken at Zazie in San Francisco on Saturday mornings, it's safe to surmise that the restaurant is a hot brunch spot on weekends (thanks in part to its pancakes, judging by the Instagram photos tied to its location).
That kind of information is one reason why Foursquare's data has become such a hot commodity. (Foursquare declined to comment for this story.) Last month, as part of a $15 million strategic investment in Foursquare, Microsoft also announced a multi-year data-licensing agreement with the location company. The partnership will allow Microsoft to integrate Foursquare's location data into products such as Bing and other Windows-based mobile apps.
The question now is how Facebook Places' location database compares with Foursquare's. Years ago, during the "check-in wars," when Facebook was trying to create a competitor to Foursquare and Gowalla, it invested heavily in Places. But the product floundered and we haven't heard much about it for some time. Since then, Yelp has ramped up its own offerings, while Google recently acquired Waze, the social-mapping startup, for $1.1 billion (reportedly beating Facebook to the punch).
Given this competitive climate, many have wondered why Facebook, which spent roughly $1 billion in stock and cash to acquire Instagram, would want its subsidiary to help an outside company like Foursquare, and some will inevitably read today's news as a sign that Facebook is trying to kill off Foursquare. Not long ago, Business Insider wrote about this subject in a story headlined, "Facebook Is Holding An Ax Over The Neck Of Foursquare."
I'm less inclined to believe Facebook's intentions are so vicious. For one thing, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom has told me several times what a good relationship he has with Crowley. "We are very, very good friends," Systrom told me last summer. "I actually grew up in the town next to his—our streets were literally like 400 feet away from each other." In fact, the day before we met up, Systrom mentioned that he actually bumped into Crowley on the Facebook campus. "I saw him walking around," he said matter-of-factly. Crowley, who has a cordial relationship with Mark Zuckerberg, was there for a casual, last-minute meetup with the Facebook CEO; the two get dinner together every so often, though less frequently in the last few years, since Zuck's schedule has become increasingly busy.
Besides, if Facebook turned off Instagram's integration with Foursquare, while it certainly would not be good news for Crowley, it wouldn't exactly make Facebook a Foursquare killer—Foursquare would still have other major partners like Uber and Microsoft. Nor would it mean Facebook was somehow trying to destroy the startup (Facebook has bigger fish to fry). If anything, such a scenario would be a good test by which to determine whether Foursquare's API actually lives up to its hype, or whether its value can be duplicated by a larger competitor.
Crowley, for his part, doesn't seem too concerned with the news. Not long after I requested comment from the company, the Foursquare founder tweeted: "♫ I ate too many M&Ms ♫ M&Ms ♫ M&Ms ♫ // ♫ I ate too many M&Ms ♫ And now I feel sick. ♫"