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Instagram: On being the product

Getting customers to use a service and then changing the rules isn't a decent way to treat people.

Let me start by saying that I’m not an Instagram user, and never have been. So I thought I could be somewhat dispassionate. But I’m finding that hard. The latest change to their terms of service is outrageous: their statement that, by signing up, you are allowing them to use your photographs without permission or compensation in any way they choose. This goes beyond some kind of privacy issue. What are they doing, turning the service into some kind of photographic agency with unpaid labor?

I’m also angered by the response that users should be willing to pay. Folks, Instagram doesn’t have a paid option. You can be as willing as you want to be, and you don’t have the opportunity. Saying that users should be willing to pay is both clueless and irrelevant. And even if users did pay, I don’t see any reason to assume that a hypothetical “Instagram Pro” would have terms of service significantly different.

It really doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve used Flickr for a number of years. I’m one of the few who thinks that Flickr is still pretty awesome, even if it isn’t as awesome as it was back in the day. And I’ve had a couple of offers from people who wanted to use my photographs in commercial publications. One I agreed to, one I refused. That’s how things should work.

As far as the general question of paid versus unpaid services: I have no idea how many online services I use. Forty, 50, more? Most of them are free, with pro versions that cost anywhere from $10-$250/year. It’s easy for a journalist writing an article in a business publication or a blogger hoping to make it rich in his startup to suggest that people ought to be willing to pay, but add that all up, and it’s a couple of thousand dollars a year. That’s a pretty big bill. And while I could afford it, there are many people who can’t. In addition, that bill adds up insidiously, $25 or $50 at a time, so once you realize the amount of money leaking out through “pro” Internet services, it’s a lot of work to scale back.

The ball is in Instagram’s court (I see that they’ve announced that they’re going to say something). Yes, they have to monetize, even within the Facebook ecosystem. Yes, they have to contribute to Facebook’s bottom line. But getting customers to use their service and suddenly changing the rules isn’t a decent way to treat people (though it’s a gambit that Facebook has played several times in the past few years). Instagram is certainly not generating more value than they capture; and it might threaten their ability to capture any value at all. I can’t see any good reason to stick with a service that’s planning to sell your photos behind your back. If nothing else, you have to ask “what’s next?”

Update 5:13 pm ET — Instagram has just released a response in which they say, among other things, “Legal documents are easy to misinterpret,” and claim it’s all a misunderstanding.
I call BS. It’s easy to misinterpret a legal document, but the language of Instagram’s TOS was exemplary in its clarity.

If Instagram is backing down, that’s great. They should just say so, rather then blaming their customers for misunderstanding. And they should (quickly) release some equally clear legal language rectifying the situation. They’ve promised to “remove the language that raised the question.” Great, but what they’re doing now is just damage control until they release the new document. Let’s see it.

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