Amid the virtual gallons of digital ink that have been spilled about Instagram’s changes to its terms of service, there seem to be two dominant strains of thought: one is that the photo-sharing service has been infected by the same nefarious privacy virus that Facebook is notorious for, and only eternal vigilance will stop it from doing something horrible with our photos. The second is that this kind of evil behavior is a natural outcome of an ad-supported user-generated-content model, and therefore this model is broken and/or bad. But is it really that simple? Not even close.
In case you missed the brouhaha, my colleague Eliza Kern has covered the details of the original changes — which many bloggers and Instagram users took to mean that the service was planning to sell their photos without their permission — as well as the company’s follow-up blog post, in which it apologized for the misunderstanding and rolled back some of the wording in its TOS. Despite the apology or clarification, however, it seems that some users have no intention of trusting Instagram again, and have deleted their accounts and exported all of their photos.
As it does in almost every case like this — and there have been many over the past few years, involving everyone from Facebook and Google to Dropbox and Twitpic — the phrase “if you don’t pay for it, then you are the product” often gets used, in a finger-wagging sort of way that implies you should have seen this coming. And there’s some truth to that: after all, how did you think Instagram was going to pay for the server space and bandwidth to host all of your precious photos? And how did you think Facebook was going to justify paying almost $1 billion for the company?
You have to pay for free services somehow
It would be nice if Instagram would just host the more than 4 billion photos people have uploaded for free, and without introducing advertising into the stream — just like it would be nice if Facebook didn’t flog sponsored stories at you, while it provides a billion people with free email and photo-hosting and instant messaging and free mobile apps. And it would be great if Twitter didn’t have to go down the same road in order to generate revenue. Would it be better if all of these services charged us a fee, as Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic and others have argued?
That’s an appealing — and popular — viewpoint. But again, it’s not really that simple. As online veteran Derek Powazek notes in a smart post on this topic, the simple fact that you pay for a service doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to be free from intrusive advertising, nor does it guarantee that the operator of the service will bow to your every whim. Powazek points out that when he had a problem with a free service (Tumblr) he got friendly support instantly, and when he had a problem with something he pays a lot of money for (internet access) he got treated like cattle. You are always the product.
In the vast majority of cases, if you are using a service provided for free on the internet, you are paying for that product or service with your attention, and that attention is going to be monetized in a variety of ways — and one of those ways is likely advertising of some kind. If you are lucky, that advertising is going to be targeted and personalized in a way that makes it more likely to be useful, and this is arguably what Instagram has in mind according to their blog post. That isn’t necessarily an evil or even negative thing to do.
In my view, this is a fair trade — I get a free service that has a lot of value, and I pay for it by looking at (and possibly even participating in) some advertising. If you don’t like this bargain, then you have other choices: for example, you can pay for alternative services like Flickr. But it’s worth pointing out that their terms of service, and those at Twitter and almost every other web-based service provider, contain wording that is virtually identical to that proposed by Instagram. Welcome to the internet.