Did Facebook buy Instagram just to destroy it?

18 Dec 2012

The Facebook-esque changes to the terms of use of photo-sharing app Instagram beg the question: is the photo-sharing app firm serious? It begs one more question, is Instagram trying to destroy itself at Facebook’s behest? It probably begs a few more questions but this is a start.

A year ago, Instagram could do nothing wrong. It was the coolest app you could then have on the iPhone and the fledgling sense of community engagement epitomised what social media was all about. New worlds – with the added dimension of filters – were opened up to you and the growing community made you feel like you were in the loop on a delicious secret.

In April of this year, Facebook revealed it had acquired Instagram for US$1bn. Post-IPO disclosures revealed that Facebook paid US$715m for the app.

In recent days, a perfect storm blew up over claims that actually Twitter was there first and a verbal agreement was struck whereby Twitter would buy Instagram for more than US$500m.

On one level it just looks like Facebook came along with a better price and that’s business.

But I always wondered about Facebook’s motivation for buying Instagram, especially since it launched its own Facebook Camera app in May. The app was very similar to Instagram in many ways, right down to the filters you could apply to the photos before instantly sharing them to your social network on Facebook.

Now why would Facebook launch a new camera app after acquiring a camera app? Because of the quality of the app and its flawless ability to share directly to Facebook, you got the sense that Facebook had been working on it for quite awhile. Still, it struck me as odd to launch the Camera app less than a month after buying Instagram.

In recent weeks, another kerfuffle emerged when Instagram disabled its Twitter cards integration. What this meant was that photos shared from Instagram to Twitter appeared cropped or poorly edited. Ostensibly this is a move to drive Twitter users to Instagram’s own website, which makes a certain kind of sense, but still the move will only serve to rankle many Instagram users who prefer to see images and news within their streams rather than hopping to other pages. Again, why would Instagram do this?

Instagram reveals controversial new terms of use

And last night Instagram compounded what amounts to be a catalogue of errors in the eyes of today’s fickle and spoiled-for-choice web and app community by rolling out what has to be the most draconian and guaranteed-to-scare set of terms of use yet.

Firstly, users must agree that Instagram can share information about its users with its parent company Facebook, as well as outside affiliates and advertisers.

In a section titled ‘Rights’ it asks users to agree to give it licence to use the content users post.

“You hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, except that you can control who can view certain of your Content and activities on the Service as described in the Service’s Privacy Policy …”

Instagram also asserted the right to use users’ photographs and identity in advertisements: “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.”

Another part of the same section asked users to acknowledge that Instagram will “not always identify paid services, sponsored content or commercial communications.” What does that mean? I may see a photo crop up in my feed that may be just like a product placement in a movie or TV show.

But my news feed is personal, is it not? Not!

Just like Facebook, expect to see a flurry of sponsored posts arrive in Instagram, but if you dare complain you have to realise it’s not your network, it’s Facebook’s network.

Since you pay nothing for the service you can either assume that it’s their network and their rules and you will abide by them or you could just leave.

The other thing to consider here is that while social media is indeed the technological marvel of our times, linking humanity in a way that informs, educates and connects us far more intimately than at any time in the past, people are simply product.

Yes, product. Fodder. Statistics. Eyeballs. You are product. Get used to it.

It’s called advertising. And even though Instagram or Facebook doesn’t generate the content – you do – they nevertheless provide the network that you have chosen to bring your content and your life to.

If you had concerns and suspicions in the past that this was Facebook’s game, or Google’s game even, if you are still using these networks you are midway through making a decision that you can and will live with.

Like Stockholm syndrome, you will begin to empathise with your captors – ‘heck they are a business, too’ – and by that stage you are living your digital life and adding to their coffers. And by that stage you’ve decided to live with it. Because that’s where your friends are, too.

However, many have decided they will not simply live with it. Already a number of people I know are moving their photo accounts back to Flickr and Twitter, using tools like Instaport.me.

Is Instagram just a pawn in a bigger game?


But what I fear Instagram has done is blindly follow orders and wreck any chance of its users deciding to live with it, because many of them will be off. Yep, they’ll have run off.

No doubt Facebook is urging its new acquisition to monetise. But Instagram is trying to do so in the midst of alienating people who share with their friends on Twitter while competing with an eerily similar app created by its new owner Facebook.

And now it has managed to scare the bejaysus out of its remaining loyal user base by killing the illusion that people with their little lives, hopes, dreams and experiences are anything but product.

At the same time, it has emerged that a kind of bidding war actually took place for Instagram between Twitter and Facebook shortly before Facebook paid a higher price for the company.

I would like to think Instagram, having done all the right things in the early days in terms of creating an app lots of people loved with its own community, will survive long into the future. And perhaps it will.

But the speed of events of the past several months make me suspect that Instagram was just a pawn in a much bigger game.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years