Color and the details of experience

By now, you have all heard of Color, the photosharing app that infamously raised $41m pre-launch from a deluge of well regarded VCs. Color is an interesting app, for sure. But like some others, I find myself just unable to get excited about it. Maybe it's the somewhat bleak vision of the future of the social gathering that Color seems to imply that rubs me personally wrong - a bunch of people, hidden behind their phones, not experiencing the moment, but documenting it.There is a time and place for these kinds of interactions, but Color seems to imply a scope of social interactions that is just unlike any before. And as I think of the EXPERIENCE of using Color, I wonder about our perilous integration with technology in social interactions - how does a wedding party change now that there's not just one official photographer, but many amateurs running around with digital cameras? How have we, as a society, reacted to the placement of cellphones in our social interactions (how do you feel about a cellphone on the table while you're grabbing coffee with a friend?)? I don't think Color has really thought about these issues - and just made a blind rush for the all-or-nothing, a blind rush towards a society experiencing everything through little glowing screens. There are a few more flaws that I think about, that maybe all stem from this issue with Color, and I wanted to take the time to write them out.

The first of these flaws is the cardinal sin of "thinking like a techie." I think part of what makes Color so appealling to a certain brand of techie is their constant obsession with chronicling - it's like they spend so much time online, where every move we make is chronicled and saved for this vague thing we call posterity, that they have grown a similar obsession with bringing that same experience to the physical world. We're all tech geeks here, and I understand how this product is fantastic and interesting in the mind of a techie. But that's the problem - if you want to create a mainstream app, it isn't about what your techie friends want to do, it's what the average person, what the universal condition of being human, makes us want. I'm not sure that obsessive chronicling is something that the majority of humans want in the majority of affairs - there are special occasions, but those occasions are the exception, not the rule. Most of the world doesn't want to capture the fact that they went to Subway for lunch, or their office cubicle life or maybe even the coffee they went to with friends. My observations of people who like Color suggest that Color works better when there's a literal cacophany of photos being taken. But the treacherous social balance we have around photography and social interactions - we are finally a people that understand what a "photo" means in the metaphysical sense that my image, my action, is being captured in a permanent medium - that a life full of photos of being taken, shared, preserved, is maybe not exactly what we want. Simplistically, I'm not sure the rest of the world is ready for the omniprescent paparazzi of cellphone cameras going off, which may or may not be indicative of this larger non-interest in obsessive documentation.

But sure, we can chose to focus instead on these moments that we want to do more with, remember more of, make more of, more than just simply experiencing. Which brings us to a different issue - why would I want to do this "more" with Color? What motivation is there for me, as an individual user, to contribute to Color? Color talks a grand game about the use of all these photos, the very many things that we will be able to do with such an amazing stockpile of photos, but they don't answer this question: before there is that stockpile of photos, when it's just me (and maybe my friends, as Color urges), why am I bothering to use Color? The clear winner in this category is obviously Facebook. This isn't a trivial matter. Uploading photos to Facebook has gone beyond the level of status messages - for the majority of people, it is a cultural tour de force. There is an etiquette to how many you upload, of whom, tagging, and even how you organize and caption them. This isn't the same for everybody, but the fact that this exists signifies its importance. It's not just about being some place and creating a record, it's about sharing that record, easily, maybe even transparently with our friends, our family, and generally all the people we want to impress with our grand adventures. Ultimately, if Color wants to succeed, it needs to deal with the way in which we have come to accept digital photographs as not just AN indicator, but THE indicator of our real-life identities in their transposed online identities. The "elastic social network," doesn't seem to get that this is more than about being at a place in a particular time, but actually the way that these photographic moments construct a trail, a trail that says "This is who I am." There is space for innovation in that "who I am" tends to vary a lot, but even among its variations, the existence of that identity - my identity as a traveler, a family member, a sports fan, a partier, a skier, these things people try to share in the narrative of their Facebook photos - tends to live a long and fruitful existence, an existence that stays beyond just the particular moment and place.

The last issue is something I'm maybe not as confident in declaring as I am with the others, but I suspect Color is based on this assumption about "connecting" that startups love to make. Mention the phrase "connect with others," and it makes half the world think you've done the product equivalent of planting Jack's magic beans - there is sure to be a golden-egg-laying hen at the top of it. I'm just not sure that people blindly want to "connect" with anybody. People have standards, you know. And I'm not sure blurry photos is a meaningful proxy by which people want to measure how interested they are in connecting to another person. Color does bring up some interesting ideas (through its "elastic social network) about social networks and how they can form and reform, but I'm not sure that photos are the best avenue through which to create that experience, or begin approximating towards it.

In the whole, Color seems like a fascinating, interesting product - and I have no doubt that someone that was able to draw all that visual, social, and geographic data together could do many, many interesting things with it on a large-scale level. But it's in the details, on the experience of the individual, in which Color ultimately falls short. And it's the details, these minuscule interactions, that determine whether Color really can or cannot live up to its dream of being a conglomerate of cellphone photos and the picture they paint of our society at large.