Instagram unleashes a thousand words

Dec 20 2012, 20:15 IST
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SummaryTo earn back goodwill, Instagram should entirely reverse course, rolling back its proposed privacy changes.

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.

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