A Brief Rant Against the People Ranting Against Instagram

Today, Instagram updated its terms of service, and the Internet exploded. The new terms said that businesses could pay Instagram to display your photos "in connection with paid or sponsored content," Nilay Patel explains. So, Miller Lite can use your photos of bars to advertise itself on the site.

If that sounds like whatever to you, then stay away from the tech blogs, which spent Tuesday afternoon in apoplexy. All day, I could feel myself getting angry that everybody was getting angry, and I couldn't quite figure out why. I think this is why:

There's a brilliant Louis CK interview with Conan O'Brien from a few years back, where he recalls listening to an imaginary friend complaining about the hour-long wait before his plane takes off. Louis CK unloads: "Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? Wow, you're flying! It's amazing!"

"Everything's amazing," he concludes, "and nobody's happy."

What the heck does this have to do with Instagram? Getting there.

We live in interesting times in the start-up world. Bio-tech is in a rut. Hardware is risky and expensive. So many of the smartest and most creative entrepreneurs of their generation have dedicated their lives to making you things for free. They're writing software, or creating online marketplaces, for you. Free. Of. Charge. Think about that. Think about how their brilliant software delights you, makes you literally happy, fills your spare time, organizes your work time, invents convenience where you never expected it, swallows your boredom in sepia tones, begs hours of your precious attention, does a bunch of other emotionally and productively and ontologically rewarding stuff ... and almost all of it is either vanishingly cheap or utterly free! Not since the cavemen, probably, did the brightest minds in the world turn their attention to making things that nobody had to pay for.

This is rare gift, made possible by at least two things: The duplicability of code, which drives the price of most software products to zero, and subsides from venture capitalists, who are happy to bankroll these ingenious inventors until they figure out a business model. Oops. I said it. Business model. Yes, so we all know these businesses are in fact business. I won't insult your intelligence with the pedantic reminder that "if you're not paying, you're not the customer, you're the product." Blah blah blah. People get that, I think. But they hate feeling like the product. It degrades them. And so every time one of these "two-sided" companies announces that they need to start attracting the second side (advertisers) in order to keep things happy for the first side (users), there is a freak-out of biblical proportions.

When digital users enter into a contract with a free company, they should have various expectations, including but not limited to: a right to privacy; a right to fair warning of changes to privacy; and a right not to be treated like an unwitting commodity. But they need to develop other expectations, too: That the road to digital monetization leads through a murky and un-mastered terrain; that every large free digital company trying to navigate this road is going to employ strategies like sponsored content that will initially make some people feel uncomfortable; that the content and information we upload to a site will never be truly our own, exclusively; and that we will be asked to pay with the only currency employable on a free site, which is our attention. 

The bottom line is that Instagram is the easiest, most elegant, and most popular photo-taking and -sharing application ever, and that is an achievement worth more than $0.0. Don't worry. They're not selling your photos. Still, everything is amazing, and nobody's happy.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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