Early in the week, we noticed that the new Instagram terms of service generated a very large conversation on social media. In order to understand this conversation and its consequences, we asked data and privacy researcher Sara Marie Watson to weigh in, using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight™ social media analysis platform as a research tool.
This week, you couldn’t go on Facebook or Twitter without catching someone posting and commenting on the news that Instagram’s terms of service changes introduced the right to sell our photos. Instagram’s co-founder has since swiftly responded with a clarifying blog post admitting the language in the terms was vague and needed revision. We conducted some social media analysis to take a closer look at what exactly people were saying about the changes, and what a public discussion about terms of service means for consumer engagement with how these terms govern our relationships to the free services that build their business models around the data and content we share with and through them.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen strong reactions to terms of service changes; dozens of articles are written about “what the new [insert platform] TOS mean to you.” What’s interesting in the Instagram case is the sheer volume of discussion that the change generated according to the social media analysis we conducted. We are starting to see consumers become more engaged and concerned about what terms of service actually mean in practical terms.
We used Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight social media analysis platform to look at the conversation on Twitter to focus in on what exactly upset most users. The majority of the conversation (43%) was sharing news about the change. The discussion revolved around two sets of ideas: one focusing on Instagrams’ “right to sell” and the other focusing on reactions and strategies for downloading archived photos and deleting accounts in response. Some talk about quitting Instagram altogether while others focused on alternatives picture sharing platforms.
The overwhelming focus here was on the right to “sell” Instagram images, which goes a step beyond privacy concerns or discussions about using likenesses or names in promotions (such as, “five of your friends liked this company”) and touches on property rights around content. Much of this is driven by the heavily linked to CNET article with the sensational headline: “Instagram says it now has the right to sell your photos.” The traffic was heaviest around discussions about the word “sell” which, despite later clarifications, continues to incense users.
As has been pointed out, the terms of service about content use are not that different from those of YouTube and Twitter. So why are Instagram users up in arms about these terms? Is this hyped? Or an overreaction? The media has done a lot in the last two years to raise awareness around these privacy and data ownership concerns, but as we’ve seen in this example, sensationalized headlines attract attention but often obscure the subtleties of the changes in policies. These headlines also ignore the fact that these TOS updates are similar to the previous blanket use statement, and in this case is simply more explicit about how photos might be used in promoted posts.
And, I think it exposes a difference in expectations around content use and ownership across different types of social media content. Photographers liken this ability to sell Instagram pictures to turning the service into iStockphoto without any possibility for content creators earning commission. This language of content use isn’t any different from the language that Twitter uses, but this reaction suggests different expectations about the value of an image over the value of 140 characters. There’s something deeply personal about pictures, and parents are concerned the likeness of their child might be used in targeted advertising for themselves or others.
Volume = Impact
What really struck us in this discussion was the sheer volume of the reaction. Over a two-day period, we captured nearly a million tweets specifically discussing the news or criticizing the policy change. For comparison, over an equivalent two-day period in April 2012, there were only 215,000 posts about the Facebook/Instagram acquisition announcement. And for context, discussion about the fiscal cliff was approaching half a million in a two-week period at the start of this month. This TOS change generated a very big conversation.
Why this volume now? The Instagram user base has moved beyond a hipster/tech geek early adopter community and been taken up by your average Joe (and celebrity) alike. Pew surveys suggest 12% of online adults use Instagram, and as of September 2012 Instagram reported over 100 million active users. It also comes at a sensitive time for Instagram, as the company navigates the transition into becoming a Facebook property and feels pressure to prove profitability. This news comes on the tail of discrepancies in testimony about the Facebook/Instagram and Twitter offers. We’ve also recently seen how small businesses are turning profits by advertising on image sites like Pinterest and Instagram.
But are high volume and engagement effective? The social media backlash elicited an almost immediate response from co-founder Kevin Systrom addressing the concerns stating, “We’re listening.” Whether this is a reversal or simply a clarification of poorly written legalese, Instagram heard the large chorus of users loud and clear.
This Instagram episode shows an increasing public interest in understanding the terms of service that define and govern our relationships to the platforms that we use for free. The outrage itself reveals an interesting gap in the expectations about how free services can and should profit from our data, content, or in this case, images and metadata. Consumers are starting to become more savvy and concerned about how these TOS affect their relationship to content ownership. It’s becoming more clear to consumers that they are “paying with data,” as I’ve described this transactional exchange of data for use of “free” social media services like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram. Our implicit agreement to the terms of service is to exchange our usage of the service for our rights to the content reuse and future monetization of that content.
I’m excited to see this kind of engagement and attention to terms of service changes that affect consumers. danah boyd put it well: “I have to admit that I’m loving the #instagram backlash. Fingers crossed that it results in users better understanding their rights.”
I think we saw the same surge of interest in the recent Facebook content notice meme that spread pseudo-legal status updates claiming to protect content use and property rights over profiles. Regardless of the accuracy of these claims, or the focus of a reaction to a TOS change, we’re at least starting to see more engagement and there’s more of an appetite for careful reading of that these terms of services mean for our use, in a way that I think suggests progress in public awareness.
Sara Marie Watson studies personal data and privacy at the Oxford Internet Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @smwat.