A friend of mine who worked at Microsoft during its glory days once confided to me that Microsoft's success in the 1990s came in part because Microsoft had been blessed with such wonderful enemies. It's not that Microsoft was so brilliant, he said, but that everyone else was just so incredibly awful.
Same goes today for Vic Gundotra and his team at Google+. Here they are, building a social network that gets bigger and better every day, while their biggest rivals, Facebook and Instagram, keep planting land mines around themselves and then stepping on them.
The latest example is this uproar over changes Instagram made to its terms of service, which maybe gives Instagram permission to use your photos in ads, or maybe not, but anyway, everyone panic, it's a trap!
Everyone freaked out, so yesterday Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom issued a backpedaling blog post that said, basically, Um, no, you guys all misunderstood what we're planning to do, and we need to fix the language in our statement, and we're totally not going to sell your photos to advertisers, we're just saying that we have a license to license them to advertisers, which is not the same as selling them, so we're totally not lying, right? Although yeah, maybe, like, we might, um, someday use your photos in some new kind of advertising or brand promotion that we're hoping to experiment with or something, but as of right now we don't have any intention to do whatever it is you're afraid that we might do, at least as far as we know at this very minute as I am sitting here writing these words, though that could change in the future. So, we good?
This is a classic Facebook-style response, the non-apology apology combined with non-admission admission, where you try to sound contrite and you fire out a lot of words and hope that everybody just gets more confused and nobody notices that you didn't actually say that you're not going to do the thing that people are worried you might do. My sense is that Systrom sold his company to Facebook and now is waking up realizing the kind of people he's actually leapt into bed with, and maybe it is also dawning on him that these guys now own him and can tell him what to do, and maybe he even regrets this turn of events, but several hundred million dollars has a way of assuaging that pain.
The Anti-Backlash Backlash
The anti-Instagram backlash of course prompted an anti-backlash backlash, as the usual lineup of Silicon Valley apologist bloggers (apolo-bloggers?) rushed out to defend Systrom and Instagram, arguing that everyone was just being ridiculous and freaking out for no reason because Instagram isn't doing anything bad here, and the new terms aren't any different from the old terms, and everybody just needs to sit down and read the legal documents, or just trust Instagram and Facebook, because why not? Look at their track record. Good people.
But if the new terms aren't any different from the old terms, why did Instagram and its lawyers feel the need to create new terms? Does anyone believe that big publicly traded companies suddenly start adding new wording to their terms of service just for no reason? Just for giggles? Just to piss people off and send users into a panic?
Who knows. I am not a lawyer, as folks online like to say.
What I do know is that I'm not going to pore through the legalese of the new document and compare it to the wording of the old document and then try to parse the meaning of the different wording, because frankly I don't have time to wade through legal forms, and I don't think I should need a law degree to stay on top of the constantly changing terms of service of an app that lets me share photos with kooky old-timey filters on them, especially since I'm married and I have kids and a job and a mortgage and loads of things that are far more central to my existence than worrying about (or using) Instagram.
The takeaway for most people will be that Instagram made some changes, and the changes seemed skeevy, and not just to the unwashed masses but even to companies like National Geographic, which has stopped posting photos on Instagram and presumably did so on the advice of its own lawyers, who no doubt understand terms of service statements better than the average tech blogger.
Whatever Facebook does or doesn't plan to do with people's photos, the damage is done. If you needed another reason not to bother with Instagram, Facebook just gave it to you.
What's more surprising is the fact that people seem so surprised and disappointed -- and even kind of hurt -- to discover that Instagram isn't some well-meaning charity organization but is in fact just another grubby Internet business. How does anyone not know, at this point, that the people who are offering all these "free services" on the Internet are not a pack of heroic, idealistic entrepreneurs but are in fact just a bunch of icky businesskids whose idea of "changing the world" means tricking people into parting with data that can be turned into money?
It's 2012, people. Time to let the scales fall from your eyes.
The Exodus Begins
Now people are bailing out of Instagram, among them my colleague Jon Mitchell, an avid Instagrammer who says he's quitting because "it's not inspiring anymore." Our writer John Paul Titlow points out that Instagram also is alienating professional photographers.
How great is this for Google+? Photographers are one of the key consituencies and were among the service's earliest and most avid adopters. Photographer Thomas Hawk touted the virtues of Flickr and Google+ in his blog post expressing his dismay over the Instagram debacle.
Some photographers love Google+ so much they even organized an "Unofficial Google+ Photographers Conference" earlier this year. Now even more of them have a reason to switch to Google+. And what can Instagram do to lure them back?
Facebook and Instagram are in a tough position. The only way they can make money is by doing things that members don't want them to do, things that, in ways big and small, diminish the experience of being on Facebook and Instagram.
So they must choose between advertisers and members, and so far -- I know this is shocking -- they keep siding with the ones who give them money.
The problem is that this strategy seems guaranteed to drive away members, which in turn drives away advertisers, which means it all ends in a blackened pit of fire and smoke, but by then, if you're clever, you've dumped your shares onto the suckers, made your millions (or billions) and moved on.
Google Doesn't Need To Put Ads On Google+
Google+ has no such issues. Gundotra and his team don't need to place ads next to, or inside, the news feed of Google+. They don't need to run sponsored stories and promoted posts and all the other garbage that increasingly clutters up Facebook. They also don't need to grab your photos and make money off them by using them in ads.
Google makes money from Google+ by using social results in its core search business. Who knows how much money, and really, who cares? Google could run Google+ as a charity, and whatever the whole things costs it would still be a rounding error to a company that will do $40 billion in sales this year and throw off $10 billion in net profit. I'd guess Larry Page would do it just for giggles, let alone for the chance to hurt Facebook, which has talked so much smack about unseating Google.
So what does this mean? It means Google+ guys can take the high road.
It means Vic Gundotra can wait for Facebook and Instagram to keep doing dumb things, then put out a high-minded statement like the one I got from Google: "As our Terms of Service make clear, ‘what belongs to you stays yours.’ You own your files and control their sharing, plain and simple. Some of our services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In addition, on Google+ you can export your photos and other data whenever you'd like."
It means Bradley Horowitz can get up on stage at the unofficial photographers conference and strike a Jesus Christ pose (seriously, check out the photo on that link) and say that Google's goal is simply "building a product for humanity."
It means Google can just keep its head down, keep adding features, keep not running ads, and watch in glee as Facebook and Instagram keep pissing off people by trying to make money off their personal information and photos. Vic Gundotra would never say this, but I'm sure he's happy today.