Facebook Poisons Instagram For Its Most Valuable Users: Real Photographers

I'm going to keep using Instagram. But I can understand why some folks, especially professional photographers, may leave.

The service's recent terms-of-service update trouble me greatly, but it's not quite a deal-killer for me as an amateur photographer. Plus, I'm hopeful that, after today's massive backlash, the company will rethink the wording of its new policy. If not, Instagram is about to get noticeably crappier. 

Under the new policy, Instagram is free to license photos to third parties without paying the users who created them. The shift paves the way for Facebook to get a return on its huge investment by monetizing Instagram. That's something the company has every right to do, but how it's going about the process - and the degree to which it appears to infringe on users' intellectual property rights - has sparked an enormous backlash and a deluge of "I quit!" rage tweets (see ReadWrite's Jon Mitchell on Why I Quit Instagram And Am Moving To Flickr). Even Anderson Cooper is pissed

When Facebook bought Instagram last year, everybody worried that the giant social network would ruin the photo sharing service. I thought that was an overreaction. Maybe I was wrong. If Instagram doesn't reverse course, this move could water down the experience - and hurt Instagram's growth and engagement metrics. 

Are millions of people really going to quit Instagram? Probably not. The service's absurdly rapid growth might slow down a bit, but those trend lines will keep heading north.

Instagram Hinges On Quality, Believe It Or Not

In response to today's news, lots of people are making the same joke: Do they really think they're going to make money from filtered photos of my lunch? LOL. Sure, there's a lot of garbage on Instagram (just as there is on Twitter and Tumbler), but there are also a lot of really high-quality, beautifully composed photographs. As social networks go, Instagram's user experience is uniquely hinged on the quality of the content published on it. The company knows this. Just look at the company blog

But even if 98% of Instagram users stay put, those who stick around will probably see a drop in the quality images. That's because the people most likely to jump ship are the people producing the best content: serious photographers.  

And who can blame them? People who make a living taking photographs already face a daunting landscape in the age of Google Image Search and stock photography. Many photojournalists and other pros had trouble warming up to Instagram in the first place, assuaged only by its rapid rise and guarantee of a sizable audience. It's a great marketing tool for photographers, but ceases to be worth it once Instagram starts monetizing their work without compensating them. 

I use Instagram constantly. Its icon occupies one of four coveted slots on my iPhone's dock and I open it almost as much as I open Twitter, and certainly more than Facebook. I use it to take and share photos, but most of the time I spend with Instagram is spent looking at images. Of all the photos I see everyday, most of my favorite ones come from people whose job it is to see, frame and snap good photos. Yes, tools like Instagram democratize photography and amateurs can produce some amazing work. But the most jaw-dropping things I see on Instagram come from newspaper photographers, documentarians and other pros. 

Neal Santos is an unbelievably good photographer. The Philadelphia-based photojournalist recently landed on Instagram's suggested user list, leading to thousands of new followers. Today, he has more than 18,000 Instagram followers, which is a promotional goldmine for somebody who makes images for a living. But Santos is now considering deleting his account.

"It's crazy to me how their blog features stunning photographs from professionals and artists who take time and put out high quality content," says Santos. "Their featured users list always has incredible working photographers listed."

It's precisely those hard-working, high-quality content-producing users - such as Santos himself - that Instagram stands to lose as a result of this change.

If that happens, everyone on Instagram is going to see a lot less of the "beautiful, original content" that Instagram is supposedly all about. The amateur food porn, on the other hand, will keep coming. 

 

UPDATE: Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom responded to the outcry by attempting to clarify the company's intended approach to advertising ("We do not have plans" to use photos in advertisements) the selling of photos ("It is not our intention to sell your photos") and intellectual property ("Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.") Systrom says they plan on updating the language of their terms to better reflect this. It remains to be seen if Instagram's first Facebook-style policy change freakout will have any impact on their usage.