The debate simmering over Instagram’s pending terms-of-service changes shouldn’t come as a surprise. These days, changes to a site’s or app’s terms of service get a lot more scrutiny than they used to.
True, most of us just grumble a little at the inconvenience of a nag screen popping up, then click through without reading. (And who can blame us?) But with a growing awareness of issues ranging from online privacy to usage rights, more and more people give amended user agreements a good hard look.
And when they find something they don’t like, there’s a receptive audience of users ready to spread the word, often on those same platforms. Sometimes those concerns arise from overblown, out-of-context misinterpretations of legal language. Other times, they’re just plain delusional – and if you posted one of those Facebook-is-now-a-publicly-traded-company disclaimers, you probably got an earful from your friends to that effect. (I suspect the issue around Instagram using photos in advertising has less to do with conscripting your next coffee photo as a Starbucks billboard, and more with serving “Rob Cottingham also followed [insert brand here]”-style “social ads”.)
Yet many user agreements really are downright abusive. They’re drafted by the company running the service, and are pretty much always skewed in their favour. Reading them, it’s hard not to think that the company’s legal department drafted them with one mandate: “whatever we can get away with.” The site Terms of Service; Didn’t Read documents the ways a range of services put users at a disadvantage (along with a handful that actually do a pretty good job of balancing conflicting interests).
The issues are real. But when people complain about changes to user agreements, as many are doing about Instagram today (the EFF outlines its concerns here), there’s often a backlash. They’re accused of whining about the free service they’re receiving, trying to prevent the company running it from making a profit, and having way too high an opinion of their content’s value. (If you’re looking for a post that hits the trifecta, with a trollish dollop of sneering, try this one.)
To take the first two arguments on quickly:
- It’s a free service: Yes, a service like Instagram doesn’t charge a fee. You don’t pay in money. Instead, you pay in time, creative effort and attention. And that, in turn, creates the community without which the service would be worth far, far less. (See “Just because there’s no price tag doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it,” a post I wrote three years ago.)
- Companies need to make money, you commie freak: Of course they do. Even the most co-operatively-owned company needs to bring in enough income to keep the lights on. (Unless it realizes an indirect return for its owners in some other way, an idea we’ll set that aside for another day.) But one-sided exploitation isn’t the only business model out there (and in the participation business, it’s a risky one). Companies and individuals strike mutually advantageous arrangements every day; Flickr’s deal with Getty images treats its users as partners.
But it’s that third “Get over yourself and your crappy pictures of food” argument that I find especially toxic. (This is apart from the objection that, if the content users are generating have no value, why put the rights to use it commercially on the table at all?) The backlash against user advocacy plays into the idea that all that time and creative energy we’re pouring into Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Cheezburger, Flickr and the many other services out there, and all of the images, videos and stories we’re sharing are worthless.
Sure, a lot of the content being shared is frivolous and silly, or executed with little thought and effort. So is a lot of human conversation and activity; we’re playful by nature, and we’ll sometimes dabble at things without ever being good at it. (Also, if you ever have a look at some of the drek that often gets pawned off as children’s entertainment, you’ll look at LOLcats and Twitter memes with a whole new level of respect.)
And all that light conversation keeps the channels open for the more significant stuff. I discover deeply moving personal stories, glimpses of awesome beauty, laugh-out-loud humour and unexpected insights through my social networks every day. They come from people who don’t always have the talent and experience to craft a polished, professional piece, but whose distinctive perspectives and voices outweigh those deficiencies.
One of the most powerful things about the social media revolution has been to give those voices an audience. And whether that audience is a small circle of friends and family or a network of hundreds of thousands, it has opened up the world of creative self-expression to hundreds of millions of people, drastically lowering the barriers to participation.
One barrier remains, of course: creating something and sharing it with the world is still an act of courage, especially with the “so… what do you think?” of a comment field or a Like button. There are still many out there who delight in running down things other people have created, and still plenty of opportunity for a first-time creator to experience shame and embarrassment for caring about what they’ve created. Easier and safer, then, to do that ourselves pre-emptively, to be the first to describe our content as trivial.
But we sell ourselves short, and lie to ourselves, when we dismiss what we’re creating and sharing as worthless – and shrug off our rights as creators as being just as unimportant. Which is why it’s deeply gratifying to see the protests that arise over terms-of-service changes: we’re starting to take our time and self-expression a little more seriously.
And just as important is the way that the platforms themselves are responding. While I was writing this post, Instagram published one of its own, featuring – among other points – an overdue explanation of the most contentious terms-of-service change, governing the use of photos in advertising and promising clearer language on that point.
Instagram’s owners clearly understand and respect that, clever and innovative as their technology may be, it’s the community and the content they create that gives Instagram most of its value. We should show our time and creativity at least as much respect as they do.
Chris Brogan recently posted about his online business card… and about one of the reasons he’s giving up on the paper kind:
Every time I give someone a business card, I have about a 70% chance of receiving someone else’s dumb email newsletter that I didn’t opt into receiving.
That got me thinking, because I saw a lively (at times heated) conversation on Twitter not long ago on that very topic.
There’s a natural human tendency to project our own self-interest onto others. So (some) marketers conclude that someone giving you a business card is permission, not just for personal contact, but to be added to any communication channel the marketer wants. (“Wha-a? You don’t want a sound truck parked outside your house blaring my radio ad 24 hours a day? Then whysoever did you give me your business card?”)
I don’t think it’s insincere, either; a number of folks I respect and love have taken that point of view. (Maybe it’s self-serving – but then, so is my “Who WOULDN’T want to be mentioned in a cartoon?” belief.)
One of the ways that we overcome that tendency in other areas is to establish a common set of social norms and expectations: etiquette and protocol. And while the centuries have helped various cultures develop sets of shared expectations, we’re still in the early days of online courtesy, and it’s still taking shape.
So in the meantime, maybe something more formal could be useful.
What if we had a “contact permissions” code for business cards? A card could have the heading “Use this info for:”, and then one or more letters representing categories like…
- S – person-to-person social (i.e. non-business) communication
- B – person-to-person business-related communication
- M – marketing communication
At least it might help to eliminate some ambiguity. Think this could get some traction? And are there codes I’m missing?
When compared with older users, young adults are more likely to restrict what they share and whom they share it with. “Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities,” said Madden.
If you subscribe to the media stereotype of young people wantonly discarding their privacy and baring their all to the online world, you’d better read this study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
The CBC’s Theresa Lalonde interviewed me back in January about social media trends for the coming year, and she was kind enough to replay one of my predictions that actually seems to be coming true (that people are going to become more attentive to how they use platforms like Facebook, and who they friend) in a piece about Quit Facebook Day.
Quit Facebook Day, judged by its stated goal, was kind of a bust, and not that surprisingly. Quitting Facebook is a pretty big step, social-media-wise; it’s the primary means of communication between a lot of people, and no other social media platform can claim to have nearly its share of people’s online attention. (That’s not even considering the difficulty of reassembling all the stuff you may have shared on Facebook over the years.) Asking folks to turn their backs on it is asking a lot… and probably too much.
So it’s no surprise that May 31 came and went without much fanfare (beyond the odd snarky tweet)… and certainly without Facebook’s sudden demise.
It foundered for the same reason a lot of participatory web sites never quite get off the ground: asking too much, too soon. I see it all too often – a potentially great community that sets the bar way too high. If you want participants to do something big (say, contributing a five-minute video or launching a blog on your site), you have to start off by asking them to do something smaller: commenting, rating or a similar low-cost activity that gets them climbing the participation ladder.
But give the organizers some credit: they worked hard, got a lot of attention and helped drive the conversation about how Facebook – and other social networks – can do more to respect their users and the information we share. (By the way, 30,000 people did take the ultimate step of deleting their accounts, according to some reports. That ain’t nothing.) No, Mark Zuckerberg probably wasn’t crying into his corn flakes this morning… but this is one moment in what I hope is a much larger awakening among the online population about the value of their participation and privacy.
And those of us who want Facebook – and other social networks – to be better, more open and more respectful aren’t just in this for May 31 or June 6. We’re in it for the long haul.
Social media culture is all about transparency: tell the world about your last meal, your current location, your relationships, your likes and dislikes, your hopes and dreams. (So far, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no social network devoted to sharing recent digestive updates. No, I’m not going to go Googling for it.)
But at least you’re conscious of what information you’re choosing to share and with whom… right?
Maybe not. One of the things they tell soldiers in case of capture is to tell the enemy nothing – not even the smallest piece of information. An opposing force could stitch together those small pieces of information into a much bigger and more damaging revelation.
In much the same way, the tiny little personal disclosures we make in our various apps can add up to a surprising degree of exposure. Case in point: “When do they sleep?”, a site that analyzes the timestamps in anyone’s public Twitter stream, and calculates the likely times when they’re asleep.
Maybe you don’t feel that protective of the privacy of your sleep pattern data. Fair enough. How about thieves knowing when you are and aren’t at home?
Please Rob Me used people’s check-ins on Foursquare to figure out when they were away from their homes… and depicted that, tongue in cheek, as a good time for burglars to check into those empty houses. (The creators have since shuttered the site, saying their work in raising awareness has been done.)
I’ve written a few times about the way online participation creates a data mine, requiring only a little digital refining to turn into a solid-gold dossier on our personal lives. And while I’m not one of the folks screaming that privacy is dead, or recommending that you never ever participate in social media, I will say this: bring some intention and awareness to your online activity. And when you ask yourself about revealing a little piece of information, be sure to think about the bigger picture it could help to build.
Think about Web 2.0 â€“ the loose collection of new technologies like blogs, news feeds and the like â€“ and one of the key things that jumps to mind is aggregation. These new technologies allow us to take raw information from disparate sources, and mix and match and mash-up until a whole new picture emerges.
Funny thing: thereâ€™s another field where thatâ€™s important, where people combine information from different sources to create a new synthesized perspective on a person, issue, organization or event.
Itâ€™s called OSINT â€“ open-source intelligence. That term has nothing to do with Linux or the GPL. Itâ€™s the practice by intelligence agencies of collecting and analyzing information from publicly available sources.
[….]The more information we ask people to share through community web sites â€“ the more we invite them to tell us â€“ the more exposed they are.
Head over there to see the rest of it.