Glass: Half Empty

Like every other Apple-focused technology enthusiast with spare time on their hands, I’ve been trying out Glass, a new app for sharing photos. Its biggest selling point according to the creators, is that they are in fact selling it. Unlike rivals Instagram and Flickr, Glass is not for “selfies, stories, quick snaps, or influencers” and there is no free tier. Instead, Glass costs £4.49 per month or £25.99 for the year as an introductory offer, going up to around £48.00 per annum after the introductory period is over. 

As someone who loves photography, but dislikes the way in which Instagram has turned into a late 90s glossy lifestyle magazine with its over-reliance on filters and airbrushing, Glass seemed like a breath of fresh air. In addition to selling this app instead of selling out their users, Glass also does away with traditional social media metrics: like counts and follower counts. While these seemed innocent and innovative in 2010, it has become apparent that such metrics though meaningless in themselves can be terrible for our mental health, and certainly do no correspond with any real sense of worth or value. The business model of selling the app instead of customer data means that in theory it doesn’t matter how long someone spends in Glass, because they are not optimising to maximise eyeballs on ads. This allows Glass to forego the algorithmic timeline that every other social media platform uses and instead offer a simple chronological timeline and feels more like Twitter circa 2009.

That said, upon signing opening Glass for the first time, I was surprised that there is no functionality available unless you sign up for a subscription. Not even ability to even view photos from other people without posting, which I would have expected. The first 2 weeks of the subscription are free however, and so I gave it a go. 

First impressions were good: the app is mostly well designed. There are some odd quirks, the back button is in the bottom left of the screen, instead of the top left as it is in nearly every other iOS app, which even after 2 weeks still throws me. The portrait orientation of the iPhone doesn’t work well with photos that are taken in landscape. Glass attempts to remedy this by zooming in and allowing you to pan the image, but I would have preferred to be able to rotate my phone and browse in landscape instead. 

Upon first launch I was invited to follow a selection of accounts. I’ve no idea whether this was a random list, or whether they have an algorithm that attempts to show you “interesting” people based on how many other people follow them or some other metric. After a day or two I’d built up list of about 15 people I was following. After that I uploaded some old photos that I was particularly proud of. It turned out this is exactly what everyone else did too. Nearly all of the photos the app displayed to me had dates on them from months and years before the app had launched. The chronological timeline seemed somewhat broken with photos from all seasons seemingly thrown in. This quirk will perhaps become less pronounced as the influx of new users cedes, but for now think of Glass as a place where people post their “best of” photos, rather than a window into what is happening in the world.

After a few days, boredom started to settle in. There were some nice photographs alright. Plenty in fact. But the web is not short of great photography. I found it difficult to discover anything interesting or above average. I particularly like landscape photography, but I couldn’t find a way to search for it, nor did Glass seem to know this and show me more of it. There are places I frequent and photograph a lot, and I wanted to see other people’s take on them. However there is no way to search by location either.  Instead, it’s up to me to follow the right people. It left me longing for an algorithm. Yes, an evil algorithm! The thing is, algorithms are not evil. It’s how they are used that determines whether they are good or bad. If an algorithm is used to optimise for “engagement” for the purposes of selling more advertisements, then this is bad. In the case of Glass, I’d quite like to see something pop up in my feed that is popular or of potential interest, but alas this did not happen. 

Another thing I noticed, at least based on the list of people I see in the “follow people” tab, Glass seemed to be somewhat of a monoculture. This makes sense: everyone in the app is rich enough to own an iPhone, probably also owns an expensive dedicated camera, a laptop (probably a MacBook) capable of editing them, and has enough discretionary income to pay a monthly subscription to a social media platform. This is boring. While I’m no fan of Instagram, it does at least seem to attract people from all parts of society. Perhaps this will come with time, if Glass decide to expand beyond its initial user base of photography enthusiasts. For now, where Instagram is the economy section on a plane, Glass aspires to be the first class area with none of the undesirables. This may not be a conscious decision, but it’s a direct consequence of being iOS only and charging a monthly fee. 

So is Glass for me? While I really wanted to like Glass, and I have genuinely found some great photographs on it, the staleness and sameness of the content leaves me wanting more for my £4.49/month. I’ll be checking back in a few months, hopefully by then this glass will be brimming.

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