Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Instagram’s New Moral Dilemma

If you went by the online comments, you would think Instagram had died. It didn’t, but the photo-sharing site’s announcement that it would start selling users’ photographs for use in advertisements next month was almost like a death notice. This change met with a decisive reaction from everyone I talked to who had an account with the service. They would not be posting any more photos on Instagram. They would be deleting their accounts before the changes went into effect.

It was unanimous. There wasn’t anyone who said, “You know what, I don’t care if that photo of my baby niece’s toes ends up on a billboard for a resort.” No matter who you were taking photos of, it didn’t seem proper to subject them to that kind of risk, however theoretical.

This doesn’t mean that Instagram is about to lose all its users, any more than AOL did when it floated the idea of charging senders 2¢ per message to deliver email reliably. AOL still exists, and there isn’t anything to say that Instagram will go away anytime soon. The people I talk to are pretty aware, tech-savvy, creative, and active online. Most Instagram users, surely, are more passive. It would be a surprise if more than 10 percent of Instagram’s users actually canceled their accounts.

Still, the number of canceled accounts is already alarming in business terms — large enough that by last night Instagram started to walk back its plans. Its reassurances, though, were perhaps too late and too vague to matter to its most active customers. I didn’t heard any of my friends saying, “Oops, false alarm.”

It might be losing only a small fraction of its users, but that doesn’t mean Instagram is going to be okay. The people who care what happens to the photos they take are the same people who care to take interesting photos. With them out of the picture, Instagram loses maybe 80 percent of its interesting photos — or in other words, it is about to get as interesting as a photo album from a family reunion.

Some people expressed a sense of unfairness about the new policy: how can a huge, faceless corporation take your photos and sell them without even telling you? But it is the new need for self-censorship that is the larger issue. Before you can post a photo on the new Instagram, you have to ask yourself: how would everyone feel if this photo were to show up completely out of context somewhere publicly prominent at any point in the indefinite future? That’s a hard question to answer, and that’s why people are now finding it hard to post photos on Instagram.

The easy answer, in fact, is to copy off all the photos and delete the account. A Wired story says that process takes only a few minutes — less time than it takes to sort out the moral dilemmas of even a single photo. So if a few million people have canceled their Instagram accounts this week, it isn’t really a boycott. It’s more the easy way around a difficult moral question that people don’t have time to address.