Why we care about Instagram’s new terms…or not

December 21, 2012

Instagram changesAs of this writing, the brouhaha around Instagram is morphing quickly. So, let’s discuss it post-haste, before it mutates again.

A brief recap: Instagram recently asked its users to accept new terms of use that indicated that if a third party wanted to buy user-generated content from Instagram, it could do so and Instagram did not have to ask permission from or offer compensation to the user. In effect, Instagram’s policy asked uses to give up important copyright privileges and shed whatever veil of privacy Instagrammers thought they had.

The new terms of use do not go into effect until Jan. 16, but The Internets — predictably — wasted no time in lathering into a frenzy.

A lot of Instagrammers did not like the idea that their personal images could be purchased without their permission, so they threatened to delete their Instagram accounts.

Now, that reaction makes me sigh in frustration. An expectation of privacy is not really reasonable with social media (Hey, world, did we forget that social media content aspires to be shared?). And, as a friend of mine pointed out in his Facebook status, what makes you think anyone wants to buy your poorly cropped, dimly lit picture of what you had for dinner?

Maybe users objected to the idea of someone else making money off their content, but in response to that argument, I would just say that Instagram is free and does not run banner ads. It has to make money somehow so that you can continue using it gratis. If you have any other ideas for how it can raise capital, I am sure Instagram would love to hear them.

Silly arguments aside, cooler heads raised some interesting questions. One of those cooler heads was actor and noted Internet commentator Wil Wheaton (who apparently was on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” but, to me, will always be Gordie Lachance from “Stand By Me.”) Wheaton queried what would happen if someone took a snapshot of an actor leaving a coffee shop; could the coffee shop then buy that image and publicize it, thus implying the celebrity endorsed that coffee shop?

Creative professionals also howled in protest, painting Instagram’s new policy as a blow to the philosophy that artists, writers and the like deserve to have their permission asked and compensation be paid before their work is reused.

Instagram has struggled to respond to the furious hydra that is Internet criticism. First, it tried to say the new terms of use were hardly different from the old. When that didn’t work, it removed the implication that user content could be used in ads. For now, it seems to be sticking with the idea that companies can buy user content, though.

I’ll be curious to see whether righteously indignant Instagram users tire themselves out, or if Instagram has to issue further statements of atonement to soothe the chapped senses of the masses. It seems like a game of chicken to me — who is going to blink first?

One thing I doubt, though, is that my friends will just en masse stop taking pictures of and applying “artsy” filters to photos of their morning lattes, their dogs in snow or their new shoes. (To be fair, I also doubt that I will stop looking.) This is the 21st Century and while Instagram’s PR headache proves that we at least nominally care about copyright protections, privacy and the monetization of the content we generate, when it comes to the Internet, we just don’t care enough to opt out of the system entirely.