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
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT