December 19, 2012

Instagram Wants To Sell Your Bathroom Selfie #awks

This week, Facebook’s Instagram finally admitted what many had feared ever since the Great Acquisition of 2012: Instagram will begin using images in ads.

By now, anyone who makes use of any social networking service should be accustomed to these kinds of Terms of Service. As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The costs associated with running these kinds of services might not be astronomical, but they’re plenty high and these companies deserve a way to make some money.

Yet, many have become understandably upset with Instagram’s recent admission. As is often the case when a company finally admits what they’ve mostly been doing all along, users of these services have a bit of a freak out moment and begin vowing to delete their accounts, salt the fields where they once enjoyed the company of this service, and warn those closest to them about the terrible wrongs they’ll begin committing against the people of Happy Town.

And though CEO Kevin Systrom has since addressed these issues in an attempt to quell the mass hysteria that came over a majority of Instagram users, there are some reasons to be concerned about Instagram’s new changes.

The new terms of service reads: “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.”

Perhaps it’s that last bit, the “…without any compensation to you” which is causing so many snappers to take up arms and deny Instagram the privilege of seeing their photos. After all, it might be something more than “creepy” to one day see a picture you’ve taken which represents a very Special memory one day be used to hawk a nearby coffee shop or park.

Despite these new changes, they’re not all that different from what Instagram or any other social service claims to do with the content you share. As Nilay Patel points out in a post at The Verge, Instagram can’t sell your photo and complete rights to anyone, and when these photos are sold, they cannot be modified. In other words, the selfie you took in which you thought you looked particularly flattering cannot be sold to Mary Kay to be used as a modified “Before and After” shot with their logo prominently displayed.

What Instagram is now able to do is sell these pictures as-is to companies to use them in ads, most likely socially minded ads. Facebook has been doing this for a few years now. They call these user-generated ads “Sponsored Stories,” and they’ve been getting into some trouble over them lately.

To boost the creep factor, Instagram has said they’ll also be selling the metadata to these images, meaning those companies who pay to use your photos will know exactly where you took them. As Patel puts it, Budweiser would theoretically be able to buy these photos and display them in an ad highlighting their favorite Instagram shots in a particular bar.

Again, the fact that a company is watching us and knows where we are isn’t anything new. Millions of social users even broadcast this information anytime they Check-In to a location on Facebook or Foursquare, or attach location data to their Tweets. Having this information taken without a user’s consent, however, is nothing short of unnerving. And make no mistake, users cannot opt out of having this information shared as they can with Facebook and Twitter.

If you’re an Instagram user, They know where you are.

On Tuesday, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom responded to these mounting fears, claiming that it had never been the company’s intention to actually sell your pictures for use in ads. Instead, he claims they were simply toying or, as he put it, “experimenting” with the idea.

“Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram,” writes Systrom in his back-pedaling post.

“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.”

I’ll say it again: This reeks of back-pedaling. Whereas earlier this week the Terms of Service claimed that: “a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos…without any compensation to you,” now Systrom is saying this isn’t the case at all.

Perhaps the reason people interpreted the Terms of Service to mean Instagram was going to sell their photos without compensation was because the Terms of Service read as “we will sell your photos without compensation.”

It’s difficult to read it otherwise.

The good news here is that Systrom now claims his company will remove this language. The bad news is, they would have done it if it weren’t for the massive backlash they received.

Systrom also cleverly admitted that the service would begin serving up ads to their users, just so long as they “help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.”

It is reasonable to be concerned about these changes, and depending on your willingness to have your information freely shared and sold in transactions where you will not be present, this might not concern you.

However, it’s likely Instagram’s new owners and the use of the phrase “without any compensation to you” are spurring the loudest responses from users.

No one wants to work for free, and the images we’ve taken are more often than not tied to special memories.

The thought of having pictures of our close friends or children lumped together and sold amongst other vast piles of images in a cold and callous business meeting can feel like the worst kind of violation.

Yet, if we had taken a step back when this service first rolled out in 2010, we probably could have seen this coming. We might not have known that Facebook, ever the privacy violators, would have one day been in charge, but we should have been aware that more people are seeing our photos than we would have liked. And while we may be proud of the pictures we shoot and blow out of proportion with those wacky filters, it’s likely we never thought a large corporation would one day drool with lust at the thought of the money they could make from these snaps.

Despite the changes Systrom claims his company will make to these terms of service, it’s still wise to be wary about companies who are all-too willing to let you use their service free of charge.

It’s been said before and it bears repeating: If you’re using a free service, you are the product.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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