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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT