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App Attack: Instagram’s Heel Turn

on Monday, Dec. 17th

Usually on App Attack we take a look at some new– or at least new-ish– piece of software and examine it’s usefulness for creatives. Try and tease out features that either unlock the creative spark or make our hectic lives more manageable.

Few apps have done a better job at unlocking the creative spark of millions in the past year than Instagram. Famously brought by Facebook for an insane amount of money, the photo sharing service has finally begun to find a way to make money. And it’s not looking too good for users.

It’s no surprise that advertising was going to be involved. That’s the way of these things: kick off a free social networking service, attract millions of happy users, and then shove a bunch of ads in their faces. We’re used to it by now, hate it as we do.

But there’s a tone to what Instagram is doing that marks them out as social media’s newest villain.First there was the yanking of their content from Twitter’s card standard. Most everyone put that one on Twitter, since they turned heel a few months back and started screwing around with developers. Twitter’s Dick Costolo put the blame on Instagram, but you could tell that no one was buying that argument.

In the light of the ad model that Instagram announced, it seems that maybe some of us– myself included– judged Costolo too harshly. If anything Instagram is just following Twitter’s lead of becoming a “walled garden”. Which is perfectly natural since Twitter was just following Instagram owner Facebook’s lead there anyway.

Still, there is some serious ick in the new Terms of Service for Instagram which will take effect in January, like these two passages from the Rules section that deal with advertising.

2. Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.

3. You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such.

In short: by using Instagram you may become not only a recipient of ads, but you may also be turned into an unpaid creator of ads at any moment. Without warning. Now I know that the business model is a lot more complex than that, and that there are legal reasons for this kind of language. There may even be a slightly innocuous form of this where businesses pay Instagram to curate the most popular pics involving their brands as crowd-sourced by the user base.

It just sure as heck doesn’t sound that innocuous.

Yet this latest round of social media tone-deaf villainy sparked a crazy (and probably totally naive) idea for how a social media product could convert unpaid users into paying users. Bypassing the need to hand over the keys to the data castle to unchecked advertising schemes.

It goes like this:

Instead of forcing all of your freeloading users to accept new Terms of Service– or heck, even new layouts– they don’t like, allow them to opt-out of the new features/rules. For a fee.

How many people would have PAID to not have  Timeline forced on them by Facebook? How many would hand over cash to avoid whatever stupidity Twitter is brewing right now?

Raise your hand. And the other one too.

Naive? Sure. Evil? Oh, still somewhat. Yet if the issue is cash-flow, isn’t it better to increase the options for earning money while retaining users, rather than setting your company up for an exodus to the next service that promises the moon and stars? Even if they only deliver it for a few seasons?

H/T to The Atlantic’s savvy Alexis C. Madrigal.

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