Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Instagram users should wise up

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
December 20, 2012 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Instagram users need to consider meaning of free
  • He says by using the service, people accept the site's terms
  • Instagram's community feels that it helped create the service, he says
  • Rushkoff: Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram and needs a return

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back." His forthcoming book is "Present Shock."

(CNN) -- I'm just as reactionary and just as outraged as the next Internet user when I learn that a service I've been using for free is going to start selling my information to market researchers or excerpting my posts and pictures for its clients' advertisements or charging me good money to communicate with an online cohort that might have taken me years to build.

Such is the case with Instagram, a free photo-sharing app for smart phones. Millions of people have downloaded the free app and have been busy taking and sharing photos of themselves and their fascinations.

Instagram has risen to the level of a Twitter as far as the culture around it is concerned. It has spawned a new visual language, a new etiquette of sharing and an outpouring of creativity in the form of contests, collaborative art exhibits and personal expression.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Instagram got so popular so fast that Facebook took notice and purchased the company for a billion dollars -- (yes, $1 billion) -- to bolster its own smart phone presence shortly before its IPO.

The problem with being bought for a billion dollars is that eventually you have to start showing the kinds of returns expected for a billion dollar company. That means either charging users for the service or, as in the case of Instagram, selling the users' data. Instagram plans to use the photos people upload in targeted ads -- much as Facebook now uses our friends' updates as the substance for advertisements called sponsored stories, as in: "John says: My Starbucks coffee tastes great today."

So now, presumably, John's picture of Starbucks will serve that same purpose -- creating a contextual advertisement. Instead of simply uploading and distributing our photos, we are working for the man.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Well, what did we expect? Did we think Instagram was just a couple of self-funded slackers trying to make the world a more photographic place? Simple though it may be, Instagram is also a massive platform of servers and storage.

There are people working there, coding the software, designing the interface, and figuring out how anyone gets to look at anything whenever they want to. They need to eat.

In a tactic now familiar to Facebook users, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom issued a blog post backtracking significantly from the original announcement and assured users that the company has no plans to use their photos in ads. But the damage has been done, and the Instagram community is on notice that they may not own the rights to the photos they upload.

Instagram revises terms
Can Instagram sell your photos?

If they had charged for the service from the get-go, Instagram would have likely had many fewer takers. Photo services from Yahoo's Flickr to Google's Picasa already existed. So instead of charging for their service, Instagram decided to get the biggest base of users it could, use its massive membership as leverage to sell itself, and then let the buyer (in this case Facebook) figure out how to make money. In essence, Instagram sold its users to Facebook. We were never the customers, we were the product.

So now that Facebook intends to cash in on its investment, it's a bit disingenuous for those of us using the free service to cry foul. We may be entitled to free Internet (though that's a topic for another column), but we are not entitled to free services. Unless, of course, we're willing to barter with something else, such as our consumer profiles or our photo streams.

What irks us, of course, is the sense that we've been betrayed. Instagram felt a little alternative, authentically bottom-up. It's a tiny piece of software, and if they had figured out a way for us to store our photos locally or to pay a small charge for server space exceeding some amount (as Flickr does), it could have stayed a rather noncommercial affair.

Moreover, Instagram's community, perhaps rightly, feels as though it was responsible for its own formation. Even though this community formed around a piece of commercial software, the relationships within it are real and the result of a significant investment of time and energy and trust. Now that those relationships have turned out to be commodities, many people feel exposed and cheated. No longer the users, but the used.

Sorry, but -- in a word -- tough. This is the way of the Internet: pay or, well, pay. Just as Facebook's users must come to grips with the fact that they can longer reach all their friends with an update unless they pay for "promotion," Instagram's users must reconcile themselves to the fact that their photographic creations are now grist for some advertiser's mill.

After all the time and energy put into one's profile or network or photo stream, the ground rules seem to change. And those rules seem to change just at the moment our investment and connections seem too large to make it worth jumping off to some other service, if one exists.

Yes, sometimes it's hard to learn just where in a company's business plan one fits. But let's hope these early experiences of investing in free stuff only to learn the true cost will make us more ready to think twice about when and how we wish to participate. For if we're not paying in money, we'll end up paying with something else.

Follow@CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in thim commentary are soley those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT