Instagram’s Image Problem


Update 2: Instagram has published a new blog post promising that Instagram will not claim ownership of your photos, and hoping to bring some clarity to the new rules of agreement.  It’s unclear whether or not the original terms of agreement’s confusion stemmed from corporate lawyer-speak, or that Instagram couldn’t effectively communicate the changes, but the actual terms of agreement are still unchanged. Reviews have been mixed, with people and brands (such as National Geographic) still sticking with their Instagram hiatus.

Update 1: National Geographic has suspended it’s Instagram page, possibly permanently.  One of the first brands to publicly leave Instagram over the new terms of agreement, they uploaded an image with the text  “@NatGeo is suspending new posts to Instagram. We are very concerned with the direction of the proposed new terms of service and if they remain as presented we may close our account”.


Aside from possibly Pinterest, this year’s greatest success story has undoubtedly belonged to Instagram. Previously an Iphone-only app, Instagram found mass appeal in April after being released on Android devices (which also helped to boost it’s popularity among existing Iphone users). By the summer, it seemed as if all of my friends were joining the site.  Every day brought notice of yet another Twitter or Facebook friend joining, and it wasn’t long before brands took full advantage. In a culture that is becoming increasingly more visually oriented, Instagram was a perfect social media avenue for building a brand image. Less than a short week later, Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion in cash in stock. In just six months, Instagram use had gone from 900,000 people per day to 7.3 million.  Just last week, Instagram upgraded it’s app with a host of desirable features, such as cropping and new lens filters.

How fitting, then, that just a few days before the Mayan apocalypse, Instagram is facing its own potential doomsday scenario.

Early this morning, Instagram released its new “Terms of Agreement”, and the reception has been less than stellar. While some of the new terms were reasonable (no pornographic material, users must be of at least 13 years of age), the following statement is what set off a social media firestorm:

Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata) on your behalf.…You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such.

In effect, Instagram (or Facebook) can sell the images you took to a third party without your consent, knowledge, or any financial restitution to you. To say that people are upset would be an understatement. Within hours, thousands of #boycottinstagram tweets were being fired off, with many users allegedly quitting the service.  As the New York Times pointed out,

The only way to opt out of the new Instagram terms is to not use the service. If you log into Instagram in any way, including through the website, mobile applications or any other services offered by Instagram, you agree to have your content used in ads.”

Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper weighed in, with the tweet “#Instagram will now be able to use anyone’s photos in ads? Without consent? Come on! Is there another photo app people recommend?”

While there’s no official count of how many users who have left Instagram, it will be interesting to see if brands stick around. While a mass exodus of private users would negate the effectiveness of a company’s message, there is also the issue of a brand not having control over it’s photos. Larger companies, such as Coca-Cola, probably don’t have to worry about having their logo or photos used in another advertisement (and if they were used, it would only be free publicity). Mid-sized to smaller companies, however, have a lot more to lose.

Further complicating the issue is that Instagram is not the only photo sharing site, or photo manipulating app, in town. Twitter recently restricted Instagram connectivity and introduced its own filters for photos. Mobile app Hipstamatic must be enjoying the influx of downloads that it’s seeing today, and a year old Flickr post (originally aimed at Facebook) has been circulated again today proclaiming “At Flickr, your photos are always yours”.

While it’s too early to tell if this public relations disaster will cause long-term damage to Instagram’s success, it’s worth noting that Facebook has bounced back from privacy concerns before. However, for many people, Facebook has been much more of a necessity, and as stated above, there are competitive alternatives to Instagram. How Instagram’s public relations team handles the crisis could be the deciding factor behind where the program goes from here.

What do you think? Have you deleted your Instagram account, or plan to delete it before the changes take place? Should brands leave Instagram as well? Has Instagram sealed its fate, or will this all blow over? Leave your thoughts below!

7 comments on “Instagram’s Image Problem

  1. Great story. I recently became an iPhone user and have been researching different photography apps. Thanks to you, I have removed Instagram from my list of options.

    • Thank you for the compliments, Liz! I know a lot of people feel the same way. I’m personally holding off to see what happens between now and January 15th to make a decision, but I can’t fault you. I think most people’s photos would be unaffected, but brands and professional photographers could stand to lose a lot from having their work bought without their permission.

  2. Well first off, the CEO of IG posted this in his blog today: http://blog.instagram.com/post/38252135408/thank-you-and-were-listening
    Now, after reading this I do not understand why he is confused that users think their photos will be used for ads. That’s CLEARLY what the new terms communicate to us. He keeps talking about how it sounds confusing and legal terms don’t always come out right but in their new terms it clearly says they may do all of these things “…without any compensation” and then in his blog he states “Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation.” Uh HELLO! That is obviously what your new terms state.
    I will give them credit for removing the language and stating clearly that we will always own the right to our photos and that will never change, “Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos. Period.”

  3. I hit “enter” to early, wasn’t finished with my comments. So since they clarified that I believe that will help their case & I’m pleased they just straight up admitted they need advertisers in order to sustain the business, they didn’t beat around the bush with that, “From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one.”

    I really think that clarifying that users own their photos will be very beneficial to their survival…that is until the next big photo-sharing app rolls along which I’m waiting for. I don’t think even with Twitter’s new filters and photo-sharing features it will be a threat to Instagram simply because IG has functions that Twitter doesn’t. I can search on IG specifically for photos that contain a certain hashtag/s, can’t do that on Twitter, if I search a certain hashtag on Twitter it will just show me every single tweet containing that hashtag, photo or not.

    The end.

    • Great insight, Blake. I agree, in the ever-changing landscape of social media, a big misstep like this could prove fatal. One only has to look at the mass exodus of users from Myspace to Facebook to see that social media loyalty doesn’t necessarily exist.

      I think this whole story is a great example of a company needing to better communicate their vision to their customers.The changes to the terms of agreement post should have never gone public in the state it was in, and Instagram/Facebook is paying the price. As you pointed out, how else were users supposed to interpret those changes? It sounds like they’re making a strong case for users owning their photos (see the updates at the top), and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them flat out change the verbiage of the document or the terms themselves.

  4. Reblogged this on Writing, editing, & design and commented:
    Bloggers were busy with the news from Instagram earlier this week. For an indepth look at the announcement and possible consequences, check out Stephen’s post at A Brave New World:

  5. Another thing I forgot to point out is their timing, much like Netflix: http://mashable.com/2012/12/18/instagram-netflix-moment/
    Instagram didn’t plan out the release of their new terms at the best time, that’s for sure. With Instagram getting an interface makeover, and after Instagram got rid of Twitter card support it really ticked people off. I loved being able to click on a Tweet with an IG photo on it and be able to see that photo right on it’s respective card without having to click a link. But, IG decided to do away with that, now I don’t even open the IG photo and the only way I’ll see it is if I’m following that person on IG as well.

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