Thursday, February 27, 2020

Never in Short Supply

Social media and the future of mobile photography with VSCO Co-Founder Greg Lutze


By Min Chen


As we gain more insight into technology’s effect on our well-being, we become more demanding of the companies that create it. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April this year, the tech giant announced that it would be testing several features intended to benefit users’ mental health. One major update is that the number of likes for Instagram posts will be hidden from all users except the account holder. The feature was introduced to Canadian users in May and is being tested in Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand.


Such changes are a response to multiple findings that have linked social media use to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and poor self-esteem. For instance, a 2018 study conducted by the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that “limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”


While Facebook is only now beginning to move away from metrics, one company has been ‘likes-free’ from the start. Launched in 2012 by Visual Supply Company Co-founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze, VSCO–previously named VSCO Cam–is an application that features a built-in camera, photo editing tools, and a digital gallery for users to share photos, GIFs, and videos.


VSCO brought in US$50 million of revenue last year and is currently valued at an estimated $550 million (Forbes). The company has raised $90 million to date, with investors including Accel and Glynn Capital Management (Crunchbase).


Known for its clean interface and analog-inspired filters, or ‘presets,’ VSCO has been a formidable player in shaping the aesthetic of the Instagram generation, even though the founders initially set out to build a tool and community for prosumers. Creatives by trade, Lutze and Flory first worked together to release an Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop filter pack. With one million downloads in the first month, they quickly shifted their attention to mobile.


The majority of VSCO users today weren’t even old enough to own a smartphone when the app was surging in popularity following its launch, as 75% are a part of Generation Z (VSCO). Lutze and his team hope to create a sanctuary for this demographic, who are most affected by the social pressures of having to create a manicured personal brand to grow a following and bring in ‘likes.’


“If you look around, there’s a lot of depression, body dysmorphia, anxiety, or just fear of missing out on things,” he says. “By removing the popularity metrics, if you will, you can just be who you are.”


VSCO’s user-centric model also applies to its measured approach to product diversification, where the company relies on data to bring about a more personalized experience for its artsy audience. New features are first rolled out to a portion of users, so the team can gain an understanding of how they will perform. But it’s been a learning process; Lutze says that this approach was implemented after the team realized that they should have “started the process of research, user testing, and all of that much sooner.”


“We spend a lot of time trying to understand what motivates you, what you’re interested in, whether you’re a pro, or whether you want to express yourself and just have fun with friends,” he adds.


In 2017, the company launched a premium membership plan, which is a $20-a-year subscription that includes exclusive presets, educational content, and additional tools such as a video editing feature. While introducing a paid subscription is typically considered a risky move, it proved to be a success with VSCO’s loyal community, allowing the company to further monetize without advertising. The number of paid subscribers reached two million in 2018 and is projected to double by the end of this year. 


To remain ahead of the competition, the company also continually upgrades its technology. It has introduced a GIF-editing function, DSCO, to rival Instagram’s Boomerang. SENS, the app’s proprietary real-time image processor, now supports all iOS video formats up to 30 frames per second (FPS) at 4k and 60 FPS at 1080p with no size or length restrictions. Currently, Instagram supports 30 FPS at 1080p with a maximum file size of 4GB and a length of 60 seconds.


On the deep tech side, VSCO has a dedicated machine learning team to continually refine its proprietary algorithm, Ava, which suggests content to users based on their photography style. Ava not only matches users based on color and composition, but more abstract elements like emotion as well.


“For Ava, we wanted it to be something that is more human, even if that something maybe is a little subjective or flawed from a technical standpoint,” says Lutze. “It needs to feel real.” 


For users, the app’s interface and presets remain its key differentiators. The company’s overarching design philosophy is minimalism in terms of look and functionality. Lutze compares designing the app’s interface to that of a hotel: “if you’re in a hotel room, you don’t want thirty different coffee cups if you want coffee; you just want one or two, and you want to know where it is–right next to the coffee machine.”


“What our brand stands for, as well as the aesthetic of it, plays a big part in how you feel when you come in. We try to translate the brand language into the actual product,” he adds.


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the VSCO team should be pretty pleased with themselves. VSCO filed a lawsuit against PicsArt this year; in a statement released by the company: “at least nineteen presets published by PicsArt are effectively identical to VSCO presets that are only available through a VSCO account.”


VSCO has been a fixture in the mobile photography space since founding, and its game-changing interface will soon be applied to other types of media as the company grows. Lutze says that the team is looking at ways to expand design, collage, and other tools for creative expression that are of interest to their community.


With 500 million people using Instagram every day, it will be difficult for niche platforms like VSCO to get on the same playing field in the immediate future (TechCrunch). But as more and more tech companies come around to putting the needs of users above the needs of advertisers, those that get there early will likely stand the test of time.


Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.

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