For the last 12 months I’ve been using Instagram regularly, but I’ve been thinking recently that maybe it’s time for a change. For those who don’t know (where have you been?), Instagram is a mobile phone application that facilitates the sharing of photographs. In the summer Facebook acquired Instagram and recently announced changes to the terms and conditions that have led many to question their use of the app.
Instagram is one of the few social media applications (along with Twitter) that I use or check on a daily basis, but it wasn’t always this way. When I first downloaded the app in 2011, I felt unsure of the filters users apply to their images. To me (and I know most people will disagree) even though they often improve the look of a photograph, they felt a little false; “I’m capturing this image on a brand new iPhone, but I’m making it look like it was taken on a 1960′s Polaroid camera”. I like to think that honesty and clarity are import elements in my work, and I tend to steer away from decoration, so after using the filters for a while, I stopped.
Once I started using the app I was hooked. The simplicity of Instagram is what makes it. Having the ability to easily share images and view other people’s lives in pictures is both interesting and rewarding.
Occasionally I will upload images of work, but generally I use Instagram to share moments in my life. Recently, my stream has been filled with images of the house I am renovating. I also share images of Brighton/Hove beach taken as I run in the morning, images from visits to galleries or random typography finds.
After using Instagram happily for the last 12 months, I am now at a crossroads. In the summer Facebook acquired the app for $1 billion, and now it wants to recoup some of that outlay. This is understandable, it wouldn’t have valued the business so highly if it didn’t think it could be ‘monitised’. What users are annoyed about is the way that Instagram/Facebook intends to generate income from the service.
In December, changes to user terms and conditions were announced, which included the following sentence: “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”
Unsurprisingly, this was badly received by users and Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, later tried to calm the storm by saying they were listening to users’ concerns. “Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that weâd like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. 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”.
“The language we proposed also raised questions about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this”
In response to this, copywriter Nick Asbury wrote an interesting piece about the language and tone used in the original terms and conditions and the way Instagram responded to user backlash. Pointing out that saying “it is not our intention to sell your photos” is very different to “we will not sell your photos”.
Only a small percent of the value of a social media brand like Instagram is in the platform itself. You could liken the platform to an art gallery; when empty, it’s just a room of no interest to anyone. But fill it with interesting artwork and people will want to visit. Investors look at the number of registered users and amount and quality of their uploaded content, because that is where the value is.
Social media businesses must balance profitability with providing their community of users with a service that they are comfortable with. And this can be difficult. Before Facebook bought Instagram, it was a loss making venture.
A possible model for Instagram would be the freemium model (free + premium). This has been employed by several tech businesses such as Skype and Spotify. A feature limited version of the service is offered to users free of charge, (in some cases, supported by adverts). Alternatively, for a small charge, users upgrade and have access to advanced features without adverts. This payment model allows new users to try the service for free, but regular users can pay for a better service. In both cases, there is an income stream for the operating business, but real financial success relies on them up-selling the premium to enough people.
I would be happy to pay a small monthly subscription and have an advert free service, without having to get bogged down in terms and conditions. But I’m not sure if that’s the case for most people.
Facebook has a history of changing user terms and conditions, then backtracking when users don’t like what is being proposed. Because of this, it isn’t particularly well trusted as a brand. There was some suspicion when Facebook originally bought Instagram that changes would be made to the service and users’ information would be sold. And some users left immediately, but others (like myself) decided to wait and see what happened.
While writing this, I have been trying to decide whether I should retire my Instagram account, or continue using the service. If I close my account, I would lose the community of followers and people I follow. There is the option of moving to another service, but the community would have to do this collectively for it to really work.
And where to go? The terms of service of rival photo sharing service Flickr allows users to set usage permissions for each individual picture, which is good. But their recently launched application, with its groups and sets, isn’t as simple as Instagram. And I can’t get round my own mental image of Flickr as a place to share images with more photographic merit, and Instagram being a log of daily life, where the quality of the image isn’t as important. But again, that’s just the way I see the services.
For migration to another service to work, it would take a tipping point of users leaving. Judging by the rate people are uploading images to Instagram at the moment, and the amount of people who recently started ‘an image a day’ projects, I can’t see this happening.
My procrastination time is now over. The new terms and conditions came into effect yesterday (Sunday 13th January), and I’ve not deleted my account yet. I think I’m going to stick with it and see how things go. And if you see an advert using an image of someone stripping wallpaper, it’s probably mine!