Instagram Reverts to Original Terms, World Apparently Ending Again

Bryan Bishop, reporting for The Verge:

Despite the public reaction, it's important to note that some of the changes Instagram suggested were actually improvements, outlining what the company could do in narrow, specific terms. The proposed tweaks made it very clear that advertisers, for example, couldn't just stick their logo on one of your photos and use it as an Instagram ad. The language the company's going back to is so broad that such use isn't out of the realm of possibility — and in that sense today's development is actually a loss for users. That's to say nothing of the rather gaping transparency hole left in the "Rights" section: a line that states Instagram never has to directly identify advertisements or sponsored content to users in the first place.

I promised myself that I was done with my coverage of the Instagram debacle, but this development is just an unavoidable conglomeration of embarrassing reporting, hyperbole, baited headlines, and misinformation. 

For full effect, let's recap the chronological events surrounding Instagram from this past week:

  1. On Monday, December 17, Instagram announced that it was making overdue updates to its Terms of Service (last updated in October, 2010). In the announcement, little was said aside from a statement of reassurance over photo ownership rights. Importantly, these changes were scheduled to go into effect on January 16, 2013 — not immediately.
  2. Upon noticing the changes, armchair lawyers began to pore over the minute intricacies of the legal document. Noticing vague statements about advertising and rights, journalists tripped over themselves to cast the most negative spin on the harmless legal stipulations. Because, well, Facebook? Something like that, anyway.
  3. The following day, having presumably finished banging his head squarely against a wall for 24 hours, Nilay Patel surfaced with an article utterly dispelling all of the hyperbole, misplaced negativity, and general lack of comprehension surrounding the Terms of Service. Patel assured Instagram users that the Terms of Service was not, in fact, the harbinger of the Mayan apocalypse, but actually a fairly reasonable improvement upon the preceding document.
  4. Almost simultaneously, the most long-form article taking advantage of the situation was published by Wired. Meanwhile, at about this moment, average users of Instagram were reposting wistful, sepia-toned screenshots of the offending portions of the Terms of Service. Others took to Twitter to opine about what Instagram's "suicide note" meant for Flickr and 500px.
  5. Soon after Patel's article was published, Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO, took to the Instagram Blog to make an official statement. Clarifying the new rules, Systrom explained that the questionable statements actually disallowed advertisers from appropriating photographs, amongst other things.
  6. The following day, Wednesday, December 19, the matter was mostly over with. Snarky bloggers, myself included, took the opportunity to deride the repeated tendency toward the fear-mongering displayed by large-scale publications and armchair professionals, but little more was to be said.
  7. Today, Friday, December 21, however, Kevin Systrom has posted a further update to the Instagram Blog announcing that the company will be reverting to its October, 2010 Terms of Service. In doing so, it's Systrom's stated intention that he and his company will solidify monetization plans before introducing updated legal terms. This will allow users to truly comprehend the extent of the company's plans without any guesswork.

Now, mere days after journalists were inaccurately babbling about the misperceived dangers of the new terms, Bryan Bishop has proudly announced that reverting to the old Terms of Service is dangerous. Granted, Bishop is a writer for The Verge — the source of the initial salvo of legally-justified rationale earlier this week — but the tone rings resoundingly poorly with me.

Instagram, confronted by thousands upon thousands of misled users, was forced into a public relations nightmare. This was largely incited by a core grouping of alarmist journalists who spend their days twitching over "BREAKING" macros and publish buttons. Given the circumstance, however, it's understandable why the news spread so quickly. We're in the midst of a slow news cycle and some sort of harmful stipulations from a Facebook property were far too good to pass up, let alone allow dozens of other publications to publish without doing the same.

But, today, after all that we've been through, we once again see a publication attempting to cast a negative spin onto something temporary and harmless. An action which, less than three days ago, users and journalists were both clamoring for.

Yes, we're aware that the new Terms of Service was, after all, a significant improvement upon its predecessor. But, at the same time, the mere fact that such panic could've been prompted by basic language suggests that there is plenty of room for clarity and revision. In other words, there is plenty of due cause and logic beneath a decision to hold off on a Terms of Service revision — which was not scheduled to become active until mid-January — until the language and purpose can be fully articulated.

As of writing, Bishop's article, "Instagram reverts terms of service after public outcry, makes them arguably worse," is sitting atop The Verge's featured articles on the front page. With a ludicrously misleading and controversy-laden headline, a matter-of-fact pull quote, "Today's news is actually a loss for users," and a tiny admission at the end of the article that, of course, Instagram has weeks to offer new language before its current changeover date, the whole article sits extremely poorly with me.

The message to be taken away from this is simple: Instagram is actively pursuing clarity in its Terms of Service. Furthermore, Systrom has a desire to fully develop the company's monetization plan before enacting any further policy changes. In English, that means Instagram is still on the same trajectory, it has the same terms as it has for two years without offending you, and it's attempting to ensure clarity and accountability for its users.

I'm not saying that the as-yet-unseen document Instagram is drafting will be good. Equally, I'm not saying that Instagram's monetization method will be gracious and without offense. I'm simply highlighting the fact that Instagram's moves — when you strip away the media-driven hyperbole and spin — make perfect sense. The new terms, if they'd gone unnoticed or without outrage, would've benefitted us as users. Conversely, the old terms which we've lived under for two years — and continue to live under today — will surely be acceptable for a little longer. Adding clarity to a user-benefitting document and displaying accountability for perceived mistakes is an unquestionably good thing.

Publications are invariably going to continue to dodge the blame for their gross inaccuracies earlier this week and Instagram's retraction is likely going to be fuel to reach that end. But, given all that we've learned this week, perhaps we can survive one day without breaking out the Internet crisis weapons and hyperbole.

There's really nothing to see here.

Armchair Lawyers Surprisingly Proven Wrong?

Mat Honan, writing for Wired:

I think there’s a reasonable middle position. I believe Instagram should be able to make money. Facebook telegraphed that something like this was coming just last week, and my reaction at the time was “good.” I was happy that Instagram had a revenue model. It isn’t a charity. And companies that don’t make money are doomed to fail. Facebook paid a lot of damn money to buy Instagram, and it’s natural to want some return on that.
Yet I also believe it’s wrong to take people’s photos – out of context – for use in advertisements. With no way to opt out.

Yesterday afternoon, as our collective hyperventilation over Instagram reached its peak, a number of articles were published with what can be described, at best, as unfortunate timing. Mat Honan, for instance, sought to take advantage of the situation and lead an ethical stand against Instagram in a post entitled, 'Why I Quit Instagram.'

Perhaps if Wired had published the article a little earlier, the concluding statement — cited above — would've impacted with slightly more seriousness. Instead, Honan's article arrived just as the Internet's resident legal policeman, Nilay Patel, had unravelled much of the hyperbole surrounding Instagram's Terms of Use language.

Heaping further soil onto the fire, Kevin Systrom then wrote a formal response to the public outcry over its boilerplate legal language on the Instagram Blog.

Now, Honan obviously wasn't the only person to fully buy into this now-defunct crisis, but his article certainly demonstrates a point: people on the Internet need to understand that the nature of digital business is maturing. The Internet in its glory days was, contrary to popular belief, uncontrolled anarchy. Creating a successful business was not so much an art as it was simply throwing together a webpage and hoping people found it.

Today, in order to succeed — and to continue to succeed — there are inevitably going to be increasingly limiting and onerous implications upon privacy, amongst innumerable other factors. Such is the nature of legal diction when covering a variety of non-threatening matters in an ever-evolving sphere of innovation.

Rather than rushing to call your signature "bullshit" judgment (Oh, look at how controversial you are!) or incite a premature ethical response to something you fundamentally do not understand, perhaps it'd be best for all of us to collectively wait until someone with some pertinent experience might explain the situation.

Over this past week, amidst a slow news cycle, Twitter has become much more of an echo chamber than normal. Whether it's discussions of gun control, privacy policies, or mental health, virtually everyone seems to have come out of the woodwork with ill-informed and woefully self-righteous perspectives. Such is the nature of a highly-curated list of people you're willing to engage with.

Unlike the exponentially more serious issues of gun control and mental health, however, Instagram has proven to be a point of resounding embarrassment for an enormous portion of armchair professionals. Having spent the better part of 24 hours fetching pitchforks and flammable liquids, suddenly rationality and reason returned to the scene leaving countless commentators pale-faced and clamoring for excuses.

As of writing, the "Update" above Honan's post states in full:

Update: Instagram said they’re “listening”, stating that “The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement.” That question was raised because the terms of service language said very explicitly that photos could be used as part of anadvertisement. I appreciate the update, and Instagram’s willingness to communicate — and I’m listening. But the company still hasn’t really said anything. Without a clear commitment on its end, I’m not making a clear commitment either: In short, I still want options.

Although I appreciate that there is, indeed, further to go in the matter, Honan's update rings false to me. Simply put, Honan was swept up in the hype of a situation he didn't fully comprehend. Of course, he wasn't alone, but I think it serves as a glimmering endorsement of shutting up, getting out of the way, and reserving judgment until you have all the facts in hand.

The slow Holiday news cycle has been a repeated lesson in the pitfalls of hastened journalism and opinion-making. But, more than anything else, we've again witnessed just how fearful people can be of things they do not fully understand. Although I don't expect that to be rectified, it'd be nice if we might all begin to hold these writers accountable for inciting such outrage over matters they themselves do not grasp.

Instagram Attempts to Monetize, World Doesn't End

Sam Biddle, writing for Gizmodo:

What none of these hair-pulling photo-sharing apocalypse-moaners neglect to mention is that Instagram's a business. A business that charges nothing for something that millions of people use constantly. In that sense, it's a crazy business. It's also a business that Facebook bought for one billion dollars. Facebook isn't the World Wildlife Fund or a soup kitchen—it's also a business, and one with very angry shareholders who expect to see a return on Facebook's insanely insane purchase. Ergo, Instagram needs to start making money.

Amidst the furor over Instagram's terms of use revisions, Sam Biddle of Gizmodo provides a moment of rational pause.

According to the revision, Instagram now reserves the right to use your likeness and sell your personal photography — without your permission or profit — to third parties. While that's unquestionably troublesome, as Sam Biddle and innumerable others have highlighted, what else could you've possibly expected?

For years, Kevin Systrom has failed to outline a solid business model for the company. As a result, Instagram fans have been onerously concerned about the ever-deepening hole the company was digging itself into. Per simple economics and business sense, Instagram could not simply pivot into a paid app, nor could it non-destructively introduce a subscription program. The service had millions of active users engaged with a certain quality of service that, if sacrificed, would prompt a mass exodus from the service.

Thus, as many rational people surmised months ago, Instagram was inevitably going to have to introduce some sort of advertising model. Facebook, given its stuttering IPO, is simply not in a position to take a $735 million bath on an unprofitable service.

As is standard regulation, however, dedicated geeks are utterly outraged over a relatively minor element of change. Photographs of plane wings, sunsets and rises, lattés, puppies, and piles of leaves are all now in jeopardy of being re-purposed in advertising materials. And yet, these are all photographs of subpar quality amongst a user pool of 200 million which are frequently poorly taken — a relatively unattractive prospect for the vast majority of advertisers, I dare say.

If you're genuinely saddened that you might not make money from some photographs you took on your iPhone 4 two years ago on a free photography social network you still freely enjoy now, then yes, please close your account. But, for the rest of us, welcome to the very nature of modern business.

Despite cries for better business plans, a sizable portion of up-and-coming startups rely upon models utterly bereft of monetization strategies. The sole objective is to reach critical mass and be absorbed by an ever-swelling, engorged, and mostly unprofitable social network. Although the problems with this strategy are obvious, it's simply the way the startup economy works today. Venture capitalists are certainly becoming increasingly aware of the problems therein, but the prospect of becoming the next Twitter or Instagram far outweighs the task of raising several rounds of investment.

Since merging with Facebook, I suspect Instagram's adoption has shot through the roof. From an entirely non-scientific survey of my Facebook and Instagram feeds, I continue to see non-tech acquaintances flocking to the service. Accordingly, I highly doubt the quibbles of some early adopting and definably fickle geeks will upset the folks attempting to squeeze some money out of Instagram.

We, as the early-adopting public, should be accustomed to the systematic deconstruction of our most favorite services. Once a safe-haven for general geekery, Twitter has forsaken our third party apps and has embarked upon a path to become a media-centric company. For all of our argumentative whining against this shift, we are simply not the target demographic any more. Having helped the service gain critical plaudits, our purpose and role has been subverted by the ongoing deluge of the hashtag-using, TV-watching, web-interface-appreciating public.

Rather than stand, mouths agape, each time a free service decides that it must make money at our relatively minor expense, is it not time that we can simply react with reasonable expectance? Of course Instagram was going to move in this direction, particularly considering its owner. Of course Twitter, after years of failing to monetize, would leverage the most user-engaged portion of its business. Maybe it's upsetting, but it's also just business.

If you want a sustainable alternative to Instagram, build one. If you're reading this, you're almost certainly one of the people most capable of successfully doing so.

Or, if you're happy using a free service with an ever-improving app, happy engaging with a well-developed group of friends, and resigned to the fact that your next latté might stand an extraordinarily remote chance of ending up in someone's marketing materials, then stick with Instagram.

But, please, let's stop fetching the fainting couch each time a business belatedly decides to initiate a vague attempt at actually making some money. For the time being, it's the way of the tech world and, without significant change, it will continue to be for quite some time.

"Instagram Testimony Doesn't Add Up"

Nick Bilton, reporting for The New York Times:

Mr. Systrom, who previously worked on mergers and acquisitions at Google, was careful about his interactions with Twitter from the start. He asked to meet in restaurants around San Francisco, rather than in either company’s office, according to people briefed on the talks. When he was handed the term sheet by a Twitter employee, a nonbinding document outlining the terms of a proposed acquisition, he read it and then handed it back, asking Twitter executives to hold onto it over the weekend as he weighed the details, those people said.
It is possible investors would have been better off selling in an open auction, to Twitter or even to Google or Microsoft.

Speaking of accountability, Bilton paints a rather damning picture of Kevin Systrom's behavior in the lead-up to Facebook's acquisition of Instagram.

In essence, it appears Twitter made a $525 million offer just a few days prior to Facebook's $1 billion (later $735 million) acquisition. Systrom claimed not to have ever received any formal offers whilst under oath, but evidence has come to light showing this testimony to be quite inaccurate.

The argument now being made is that Systrom willfully lied to the SEC/DOJ in order to secure a more lucrative deal, an act which has large anti-competitive ramifications for the broader market. Offering dubious claims regarding monetization, the breadth of the Instagram social network, and stating that Instagram would remain "open" to all social networks, there is plenty of evidence freely available contradicting each point of Systrom's testimony.

Still, in spite of the alleged misinformation, I doubt much will come of this situation. The deal was finalized in September and Twitter has since embarked upon a route directly contending with Instagram's filtered photography. I suspect that, if pushed, Systrom would be able to provide loosely adequate responses for most of these allegations — at least well enough to cover himself, Instagram, and Facebook.