Thought Bite

On whose terms?

Creative protest

Popular photo sharing network Instagram changed its privacy policy and terms of service last week, and sent the web into a tailspin with the fine print about sweeping rights claims to monetise and re-purpose people’s photos.

The Instagram end game looks to be allowing companies to pay to promote themselves to your followers, using photos you took that involved them. It’s also aimed at letting them monetise with advertising that is (to quote a smart friend of mine) on the right side of “the line between socially relevant and creepy.”

When you mix social and economic norms it can become a bit of a minefield. Despite the fact users could connect with strangers, most Instagram users I know describe the service as feeling more ‘personal’ and ‘intimate’ than Facebook, because of its photocentricity. Exchanging visual moments usually connects us in a more powerful way than words.

Oh, and the absence of ads. Instagram felt private, even when it was public. Facebook can feel like a shopping mall with grating elevator music.

If a company amasses social capital they need to follow through and acknowledge the social contract that comes with that capital when navigating their commercial pathways. Community managers (if they have one) are well placed to help them do it.

Culture clash

A community establishes a culture and array of social codes. It speaks a language and has a ‘way’. (It’s conventions are so tangible they can be parodied). Then it’s bought or taken over by another company.

The new owners may want – or need – to change the way things run. They may have a different philosophy of community or a different approach to community management. They may want to moderate more (or less) strictly. Change the way the community looks and is organised. They may want people to start using their real names. They may need to make (more) money.

They may see users, not members, and not understand the distinction.

As a mandate collides with established ways of being and interacting, it provokes a culture clash. These clashes aren’t new – ask most community managers and they’ll tell you a story of one – but we will see more of them as our social lives remain public, interconnected and somebody’s bottom line.

What if Facebook buys Reddit? Or Apple buys Trip Advisor?

There’s nothing wrong with monetising a community. It’s usually essential and there’s some innovative ways to do it.

But beware when you snap change the rules of engagement in a space you’re not seen as a part of.

You can change the culture of a community (sometimes you have to), but it takes time, and that time is usually proportional to the lifetime of the community. You also can’t do it without the help and influence of members.

Behaviour doesn’t change because of guidelines, or terms. It changes with conversations and social proofing.

Ripping the band-aid off will make things worse, and may kill your community altogether. If you don’t want to invest the time, reconsider investing in a community. Companies who buy platforms powered by people (even if they weren’t looking to buy the ‘community’ in itself), need to make a plan for change management within that community beyond an announcement saying they’ve moved in.

An update to the fine print binding a community is felt more acutely than a simple terms change on a service website.

If you’re going to change stuff – for safety, convenience, consistency or profit – figure out the cultural impact on the community and work with those best understand that culture to manage the change as smoothly as is possible.

If your users care, you’ll need to care at least as much (even if you didn’t originally).

If you steam roll your changes, you’ll alienate your best users and bait your worst; and you’ll start corroding the asset you’ve just purchased. It’s more politics than system update – and for all their digital acumen, the founders of some of our most successful social companies seem to miss this point.

If you need to merge the acquired community with another, it’s even more delicate. Be honest about how they’ll fit. Can you afford to maintain existing boundaries (visible and intangible)?

Look at the effort members have invested over time (content, ideas, achievements) and work out how you’ll recognise that in the new community structure. If you can’t, at least explain why. And don’t send the lawyers to do it.

The ‘takeover’ will be a milestone in the history of the community, even if specific operational changes don’t emerge for a while. It’ll be a target. Don’t make it an easy one.

Signal that you understand while the community isn’t (usually) a democracy, it does have a shared destiny and you take the responsibility of steering it seriously.

You can’t and won’t keep everyone happy. But why set yourself up for failure by ramrodding change through a sophisticated social space? You need to lean on change management, not legalese. And for goodness sake, don’t be cavalier.

What stood out about Instagram’s policy update was how much it felt like a Facebook maneuver. Announce. Backlash. A retraction that wasn’t, which further muddied the waters. The sneaking suspicion that nobody really took user objections too seriously. Now a part of the Facebook machine, Instagram appear to have absorbed their attitude to users, and this is incompatible with a community built around passionate sharing, under largely pseudonymous handles.

Instagram management have to overcome an almost total lack of trust around their new parent (Facebook), and demonstrate they can still be trusted to put the needs of their users first, even if the rules of engagement have to change. They knew the anticipation of this change was out there (if they were listening), and yet they still rolled it out flippantly.

I’m disappointed their community managers didn’t seem empowered to help mitigate the blowout. I didn’t hear their voices at all, as an Instagram member.

Blaming the victim

Pundits delight in dismissing the type of concerns Instagram users raised. People are ‘stupid’, ‘naive’ and ‘vain’ for presuming their content was their own, that they’re anything other than a product, or that Instagram would ever want to sell their crappy photos.

There’s a pill of truth within their snark, and that’s the social role we’ve fashioned for our pundits; trolling populism.

But we’re not talking about uncooperative software, we’re talking about people.

We’re not neat creatures, which is inconvenient to an end game of quantitative existence. “Will Instagram sell my photos?” is the wrong question.

They probably won’t. They might someday. They’ll certainly use them in ways they didn’t originally tell me they would.

‘What does it mean that a moment shared between friends is a commodity?’ is the more interesting question, now that most understand that it is. When we tether our intimacies to the profitability of a private company we will get angry and feel betrayed when terms of service change. They’re terms of existence.

Of course my photos don’t really matter to anyone but me. But they matter to me.

Your diary, scrapbook and photo albums are listed on the stock market. That’s the world we’ve allowed folks like Mark Zuckerberg to create.

Personal, private and public are fuzzy realities now. But this doesn’t mean we should shut up and suck it. Just because we choose to make something public, it doesn’t mean we’ve divested it of a personal connection. On the contrary, it may have even greater emotional weight. And it’s the personal which is often the casualty in these debates.

Let’s stop calling OTT and beating up on people who express that connection, just because we don’t feel it or buy into Zuckerberg’s new world of ruthless transparency (unless you can afford a big wall).

Don’t bully me into not having an opinion about the fact I have value as a fleshy bundle of data, if not a share in the rewards (Or I might get mad).

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