One of the best recent outings in the Marvel universe is the animated series What If...?, which explores alternate universe takes on various superhero storylines that deliver fascinating scenarios if one single factor had been different in the story.
Using that framing, I'd like you to take a moment to imagine something in the real tech multiverse that is just as potentially fascinating: What if Facebook had launched Ray-Bay Stories as a partnership with Instagram instead of Facebook?
• Don't Miss: Facebook and Ray-Ban Stories Smartglasses Unboxing
For those within the tech sector, the distinction may seem trivial, but for mainstream consumers, that single change in branding choice could have spelled the difference between an instant hit wearable product versus a device that is now being cast as the latest in Facebook's negative string of surveillance and privacy issues.
Although the public should view Instagram as an integral part of Facebook, the truth is that, culturally, the two brands are seen as very, very far apart. The somewhat family-oriented and aesthetically creaky image of Facebook pales in comparison to the still edgy, still cool brand of Instagram that is driven by global celebrities and social media influencers alike. Frankly, I view it as almost a marketing crime that these smartglasses weren't marketed as Ray-Ban x Instagram smartglasses.
Why? Well, I'll just come out and say it: Ray-Ban Stories are really, really cool. I love them. They are designed well, the technical features work as promised, and they fill the gap I've long had with regard to getting a pair of classic James Dean-style Wayfarers. Offline, every friend I've shown them to raves about the device and talks about buying a pair.
Alas, in the larger public sphere, this excitement is likely to be tamped down by the Facebook branding associated with the product, which has already given rise to an official investigation in Italy (one of the device's initial launch countries). Garante, the Italian Data Protection Authority, in collaboration with the Irish DPC, launched an initiative to "assess compatibility of the smartglasses with privacy legislation."
"We know people have questions about new technologies, so before the launch of Ray-Ban Stories we engaged with the Irish DPC to share how we've built privacy into the product design and functionality of the glasses to give both device owners and people around them peace of mind," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement shared with Reuters.
Would this level of official scrutiny have been directed at Ray-Ban Stories if they had been branded with Instagram? Perhaps. But the lightning swiftness of the official inquiry from European authorities was likely spurred by the mere mention of a "Facebook wearable camera." Similarly, a number of frequent Facebook critics have come out against the wearable, depicting it as yet another piece of surveillance tech in the company's arsenal.
To be clear, Instagram branding wouldn't have solved any of the privacy concerns being raised by critics. But as we've seen, Instagram is so beloved by its users, that if those users had quickly embraced Ray-Ban Stories, well, tech critics be damned, the product would immediately accrue more shelf life and additional cultural cachet.
However, as it stands, the drum beats against the device are already threatening to damage the prospects of one of the best wearables of any sort on the market.
But what about that bombshell Instagram report from The Wall Street Journal last week? Yes, the report, which claimed that "Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen Girls," is really bad optics. And, if indeed accurate, it's even worse in terms of actual impact to users. But despite the subsequent Senate action to question Facebook about the media report, no one expects anyone to willingly stop using Instagram—it's just too popular with a broad segment (roughly one billion monthly active users) of the planet.
The same can't really be said for Facebook, despite its seemingly inexorable rise in users numbers every year (roughly 2.89 billion monthly active users this year). Instead, for the last few years, Facebook has faced an unrelenting assault on its credibility and motives from US and European officials, and a growing legion of tech insiders, some of whom are former Facebook employees.
None of this is to say that Ray-Ban Stories will fail, but given the tight Facebook View mobile app integration and front-facing branding of Facebook, the device faces an uphill climb. Something similar happened a few years ago when Facebook decided to aggressively add its branding to its Oculus VR division. But because the community of Oculus devotees was relatively small, and VR has yet to fully go mainstream, the stakes simply weren't as high.
In contrast, when imagining a world in which the power of Instagram is enhanced by a pair of branded camera glasses designed by Ray-Ban, it's difficult to imagine that being a losing combination.
And sure, you can easily upload your Ray-Ban Stories photos and video to Instagram via the Facebook View app, but forcing users to go through the Facebook brand gateway will be enough for some to take a pass on these amazingly well-crafted smartglasses, and that's a shame.