Why Instagram Didn't Really Lose 25% Of Its Users

New analytics from AppData suggest that Instagram is hemorrhaging members after last week's backlash against its changing terms of use. Some sites are reporting that Instagram has actually lost 25% of its daily active users as a result of the incident, which had Instagram enthusiasts and the Facebook-wary alike hoisting their pitchforks in protest. 

The New York Post reports:

"The app, which Facebook acquired for $1 billion earlier this year, may have shed nearly a quarter of its daily active users in the wake of the debacle, according to figures from AppData."

While Instagram wasn't willing to divulge statistics to the contrary when we reached out for comment, it did dismiss the AppData numbers altogether. According to a company representative, "This data is inaccurate. We continue to see strong and steady growth in both registered and active users of Instagram."

But in light of Instagram's nimble PR recovery and a host of other uncontrolled variables, the 25% figure is just an bad read on some out-of-context statistics. Here's why.

AppData's Imperfect Instagram Sample 

For starters, AppData's numbers only reflect the behavior of Instagram users who have tied their accounts to Facebook. According to AppData's disclaimer, "only users who connect to the app using Facebook are included in the active user counts." This April, that accounted for a 20% sample of Instagram's total user base, up from 15% in 2011.

While 20% is by no means small, it represents Instagram users' behavior in relation to Facebook. Considering that the blow-up last week revolved around Facebook's mobile advertising plans, that's a big variable. Instagram loyalists are happy to blame Facebook for any of the app's missteps anyway, and it's possible that the whole ordeal had users snipping their Facebook ties rather than jumping ship altogether. Instagram users who connect through Facebook are arguably the most volatile subgroup of its over 100 million users. 

Blame The Holidays, Not The Backlash

Interestingly, according to AppData, Instagram's numbers actually remained level during the ToS debacle, which began unfolding on Dec. 17 and reached a fever pitch the next day. Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom apologized and rolled back the proposed policy change on Dec. 20. Instagram actually saw an increase in DAU from 16.2 million to 16.4 million between Dec. 18 and 19. The decline to 12.4 million began on Dec. 23, which began to sink from a baseline of 15.7 million, with a sharper drop on Christmas Eve.

Compared to the apparent effect of the Christmas holiday, Instagram's ToS kerfuffle appears to have had little measurable impact on AppData's numbers. And according to the data, monthly active use numbers are up 600,000 today from yesterday. Weekly active users are up 29.4 million today from 28.5 on Dec. 27.

A Complicated Year For Instagram

The holiday 2011 season was good to Instagram, though those were considerably simpler times. Last year around this time, Instagram saw explosive growth as both iPhone 4S activations and its new title as Apple's official "iPhone App of the Year" fueled its trend to the top. As CEO Kevin Systrom told Gigagom: "Coupled with being iPhone App of the Year – new activations of iPhones on Christmas definitely gave Instagram a bump, though we’re not releasing publicly how much of a bump. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but things are going well!" 

As Buzzfeed suggests, to really examine the fallout of Instagram's policy debacle, one would be better served to look at Flickr's numbers from last week (we requested as much from Yahoo! last week but received a link to a company blog post instead). But even if Flickr saw a spike in growth, the two services aren't mutually exclusive. Not to mention that Instagram can add new users faster than it might lose old ones. 

Shares of Facebook stock were down 1.46% percent this morning, opening at $25.29 before inching upward over the course of the day. While this year has seen more ups and downs for the hit photo sharing app - from its billion dollar acquisition to its ever-increasing user numbers - it's still overwhelmingly on the up and up.