Wednesday, December 19

Blowing Up Instagram: Facebook

If you ever wanted to test against the fragility of a social network, Instagram is the photo sharing social network to watch. Facebook, which is well known for overreaching on some terms and privacy issues, has decided to claim ownership rights on everything members upload and share across Instagram.

Instagram, which was one of the few apps worthy of review in 2011 (pre-Facebook) on our alternative review site, received a respectful opening score before any of the other bells and whistles it has added since. We gave it 5.2 on our alternative scale, which would be right around 7 or 8 on a non-alternative 1-10 scale. It rated high because it revamps the artistic fun associated with Polaroid cameras for the modern age, using digital data instead of the integral film commonly associated with Polaroid photos.

So what changed? Instagram via Facebook is now asking for unspecified future commercial use of people's photos, which means (as the article states) a hotel in Hawaii can use your Instagram photos if they pay Facebook. The member won't receive any money. They won't receive any credit. They won't even receive notice.

What will the Instagram member get? A whole lot of headaches, advertisers too.

One has to wonder about the logic of such service changes, especially because it opens up a steady stream of problems even if members don't care. The worst of them, even for Facebook, is that this change of policy makes them a publisher and not a sharing service, culpable for the images people post.

But there are other problems too. The very idea that one day an Instagram member might see their photo in a commercial advertisement without compensation or notification is flawed. Given that most photographers would claim copyright infringement before realizing they signed away their rights on Instagram, I would advise any my clients to avoid purchasing pics via such a pariah policy.

In fact, Instagram makes it all especially risky because there are thousands of bands, authors, and artists that have turned to Instagram as their preferred photo sharing tool. Given their struggles with preserving copyrights in the digital age, it doesn't seem plausible they can afford to support a service that claims ownership of concert shots and album designs or artist proofs and dust covers. I just don't see it.

Amateurs will have plenty to worry about too. Their kids could become the poster children for anybody and everybody Facebook decides to the sell content to. In some cases, it puts kids even more at risk. In other cases, it will be even more creepy in the hands of some questionable advertisers buying the rights.

A speculative analysis of why Facebook made this logic leap. 

While Facebook/Instagram hadn't made a public statement about the policy changes, one could assume that the logic leap was made because Facebook makes similar claims on content shared to Facebook. Along with this precedent, people have largely ignored the problems with the Pinterest policy too.

What these two policies have taught social networks is that once people become attached to a service, they tend not to care and outright ignore any policy changes. They give up their privacy. They give up their rights. They give up everything (as long as they can use the service). They just don't care.

Except in this case, Facebook seems to have made a fatal flaw in assuming people would treat Instagram policy changes the same. First and foremost, unlike Facebook, there isn't a compelling reason to use Instagram given all of the other photo sharing networks in existence that don't claim ownership.

While Instagram is preferred, there are plenty of alternatives. Even the effects features have since been duplicated across a wide variety of apps. All anyone has to do is use them to achieve the same result.

This makes or an interesting case study in that unlike Facebook, which has achieved a must-have status in perception if not reality, Instagram still feels optional despite the $1 billion price that Facebook paid. It also makes an interesting case study because Facebook is being forced to continually prove its own stock price while illustrating why its publicly traded price continues to struggle. It might be worth something as the leading social network today, but it is still being managed in a rather immature fashion. Sooner or later, the front runner might implode like almost every other front running social network before it.

A final thought on rights and social networks in general.

Personally, I've always found myself operating in two different directions when it comes to ownership and the Internet. On one hand, publishers and distributors have to be open minded about Fair Use laws. Even when it comes to my content, here and sometimes other places, I've taken a lenient stance provided links and credit are given when links and credit are due. Social is all about sharing, much like TripAdvisor has realized in opening up its content to thousands of other sites.

On the other hand, I have practiced restraint and resistance to every social network I have ever worked with that has tried to claim ownership of other people's content. In one instance, I turned down an offer to help edit a book made up of member-generated content after learning that the content originators would be credited but not notified or compensated. I made my case strong enough that the network dropped the idea.

The bottom line is that there isn't any need (except greed) for social network startups or established behemoths to claim anything but enough rights to enable people to share their content. Anything beyond a post or picture as a one-time share is an overreach that people ought not to ignore.

They ought not to ignore it for two reasons. Social network members that ignore policy changes risk becoming little more than slaves to the social networks they support. And social network providers, even if they are more sensible in their own policies, need to police their industry against such abuse or all of them will risk future legislation and laws that reverse and regulate the immaturity of a few.

Immature really is the right word. Despite the best guesses of some, Facebook is ruining Instagram. I will hate to leave, but if Instagram doesn't self correct by Jan. 16, I'll be among the departed.

Update: In traditional Facebook fashion, Instagram responds to the pushback with an apology.
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