Instagram Explains Itself, Basically Confirms the Fear That I Had

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Instagram is providing a peek into the future of advertising. Let's see if you like it.

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An Instagram of a restaurant that I would happily advertise.

When Instagram changed its terms of service, I envisioned a scenario where the company would use my photos near some place to advertise that place to my friends. Today, in response to some users' negative responses, co-founder Kevin Systrom put out this vision for his company's future business model


Let's say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce -- like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo -- might show up if you are following this business.

How is this different from my scenario? Well, in Systrom's scenario, you've followed the brand explicitly. In mine, they've extracted your "implicit" fandom. But in both cases, your information will be used to help sell your friends on a business. 

And I admit, that is a big difference

On the other hand, what is to stop Instagram from advancing from their scenario to mine? Precisely nothing, as the terms of service lay out so nicely: 

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 all they're after is profile photos, then why specifically reserve the right to photos and associated metadata? 

Take this scenario: You go out on a date and take a photo in front of a restaurant. Instagram extracts the restaurant name (say, Hard Rock Cafe) and uses that information and/or photograph to sell that place to your Instagram followers who open up the app when they are near that location. 

Our business editor, Derek Thompson, when I laid out this scenario, said to me, "That is really assuming a lot about the technology and projecting way down the line." 

But I don't think it is. After all, it's easy to match up location data with places that you go. And even if you scrub the location data, for many brands, it's possible to do machine vision on their logos. This is what the Google Maps VP told me about this very topic (emphasis mine): 

Google Maps VP Brian McClendon put it like this: "We can actually organize the world's physical written information if we can OCR it and place it," McClendon said. "We use that to create our maps right now by extracting street names and addresses, but there is a lot more there."

More like what? "We already have what we call 'view codes' for 6 million businesses and 20 million addresses, where we know exactly what we're looking at," McClendon continued. "We're able to use logo matching and find out where are the Kentucky Fried Chicken signs ... We're able to identify and make a semantic understanding of all the pixels we've acquired. That's fundamental to what we do."

Granted, Google is Google. But Instagram is Facebook, no? Are we really betting that they can't come up "a semantic understanding of all the pixels we've acquired"? Of course, the we in McClendon's quote with Google, whereas the we in my reformulation is Instagram's users. And that's the rub. 

Keep in mind, too, that Facebook uses the contents of your messages to sell you advertising. If you mention you got engaged in wall posts, BOOM, wedding service ads. They even have to have rules, internally, about how long they should allow people to target those who have talked about engagements. This is the road that Instagram is starting down.

There are ways that Instagram could roll out a business model without doing this kind of stuff. Users could pay (or even just pay to opt out), as I suggested yesterday. Wired's Mat Honan laid out a few more options

There are a lot of other ways to make money. Sell an ad in the stream. Sell an ad on individual users' pages. Sell an ad against search results, and another for tags that relate to upcoming events. Offer "pro" features -- like special filters or promoted profiles.

To which I say, yeah! 

But also, even within the advertising scenario that Systrom is laying out, Instagram could make things a little better for its users. The terms of service could simply take out that little claim on your "photos (along with any associated metadata)." Honestly, you take that out, and I'm feeling OK with the rest of it. Use my likeness, use my actions following brands, fine. But leave the actual contents of my content out of it. 

And maybe they will. We'll have to wait and see what the actual changes look like, but Systrom did add in his note to users, "The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we're going to remove the language that raised the question." 

I don't trust what companies tell us about their "plans," but I'd love that language to disappear.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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