John C Abell
Instagram surely didn’t expect to stir up a hornet’s nest with changes to its terms of service announced two days ago. But it was met with an Internet flash mob: high-profile tech writers who had adored the service abandoning it and thousands of angry words from the rest of us about what Instagram’s pictures are really worth.
The issue was joined with these 115 words: “Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata) on your behalf.”
The next day, Instagram had a bit more to say: “Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.”
It’s a fast-moving story—something may have already changed by the time you read this. The changes don’t take effect until January 16, and they are not retroactive: Everything you share on Instagram until that date is exempt from the new policy. But the terms as originally described—and not yet retracted—were pretty expansive. They spoke of revenue and ads that may not look like ads. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what that might allow the company to do. Saying you don’t “intend” to do anything means nothing. It is what politicians say when they intend to do the opposite but can’t yet go public. Instagram deserves to make money. It should be lauded for thinking outside the box. And nobody has figured out the perfect way to subsidise mobile sharing services. But like Netflix did with its disastrous Qwikster idea, Instagram needs to reverse course quickly and think about what it has done. A face-saving way out comes in a careful reading of what the digerati have made into a cause célèbre. It’s a matter of respect toward the people who actually made the service successful by sharing in such huge numbers.
Wired’s Mat Honan has left the service, but he’s willing to go back “if it does walk its terms back significantly and permanently.” His biggest beef was how cavalierly the service acted—“without offering any other option to the very users and data that built it.” Once it has reversed course, Instagram would be wise to go one step further: start a paid service. The problem: Facebook bought the service for data, not subscription fees. Still, some sort of quid pro quo for the user, other than the thrill of uploading pictures that Instagram may then monetise, has to be part of the solution.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal invoked what might be the most significant philosophical concept of the digital age: why you should want to pay for software and services. (Because if you don’t, you are the product.) “Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value,” Madrigal wrote. “It’s amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold.”
Co-founder Kevin Systrom is fully owning Instagram’s woes, but it’s all about the Facebook Effect: The massive social network paid almost $1 billion for Instagram. In part it was a defensive move to protect its status as the biggest photo-sharing site in the world from a popular competitor. But mostly it was data strip-mining. Facebook’s revenue comes from the scale of information it can monetise, so any great pool of information is attractive. The danger is in maintaining a delicate balance of coming up with a sustainable business plan without alienating the hordes whose allegiance is the only reason you are valuable. Asking members to pay something, with “premium” services, would be a bold initiative. Allowing members to retain meaningful control over how their images are used, which Creative Commons licensing affords, would give Instagram much of what it wants without alienating its suppliers — er, members. Facebook is heavy-handed because it can afford to be. But unlike Facebookers, Instagramers aren’t without recourse. Instagramers benefit from data portability — they can take their pictures and go home.
They also have other places to go, including Yahoo’s Flickr photo-sharing service, which was moribund for years but had the prescience to release a major upgrade to its previously lackluster iPhone app one week ago. It is now the functional equivalent of Instagram and is superior to it in many ways: You can chose levels of sharing (with Instagram, your pictures are either public or private), has offered Creative Commons licensing for years and even lets you sell your work in a partnership with Getty, the massive photo archive. With respect and incentives, Instagramers might be just fine if the app experimented with ways to make money off members in an effort to keep the service free.
It would be premature to suggest that Instagram is in any real danger. But “free” services are running out of room to operate as people realize that nothing is free. No single reminder of the true cost in privacy and control may move the needle, but an accumulation of insults often leads to an “enough is enough” moment from which there is no turning back. It’s the difference between being a user and being used.
For the time being, Instagram’s fate is in its hands. It’s not a pretty picture, but with the right filter, Instagram can still manage to make the image look better than it actually is.