Surprise! Social media companies are businesses too

Instagram behaving badly social networks

This week, the latest social network to feel users’ wrath was Instagram. The photo-sharing platform’s terms of service and privacy policy update inspired a rage so real (can we call it #Instagate yet?) that CEO Kevin Systrom issued something of a backpedal (a weak one, but nonetheless, a backpedal) and a soft apology.

instagate sell outs“I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion,” he wrote. “As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.”

A very nice (if vague) sentiment. What’s more interesting was this line:

“From the start, Instagram was created to be a business.”

Because apparently, we all forgot that – we forget it every time a social network acts like a business. “Acts like a business” isn’t even the right thing to say, because they are businesses. When Facebook switched to the Timeline and later announced its IPO, users screamed foul. When Twitter announced API restrictions, it was labeled a sellout. The Tumblr-devoted have had some not so nice things to say about their beloved platform’s advertising strategies.

And it’s not just when these social networks do something that leverages our data (although this is the more appropriate time for us to get mad, but I’ll get to that), it’s when they grow up a little and we feel left behind. Facebook was originally a place made by a college kid for college kids – and we, the early users, identified with that. It was acceptable to litter the place with photo proof of our drunken antics and moody status updates about our boyfriends. It felt like it was ours. Twitter was an international communication wire, where the earliest tweeters were swept up in building this thing… as it was being built by the development team – users, in fact, are responsible for the hashtag’s purpose.

We identified with these networks and their creators. It wasn’t Microsoft or Intel or even Google making these places for us to store our digital lives, people were creating them. People with names and faces and lives that the average person knows, something that can’t be said for entrepreneurs of yesteryear. Everybody knows who Mark Zuckerberg is, and plenty of people have at least some awareness of who Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, Kevin Rose, David Karp, and Kevin Systrom are. This isn’t how it used to work in the computing and digital world (before anyone yells at me, I do acknowledge exceptions like Paul Allen, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs). But now we do, and for the most part, they are people that used to be a lot like us. And now, they’re not. They’re big time, world-known, extremely rich enterprise heads leading million and billion dollar companies. And that makes it easy to call them sell outs.

The business of social networking is tricky. It is anything but finite. There are still so many unknowns – this book is being written as we go along, and we, the users are helping write it. Which is where more of the hurt comes in. When Instagram said it could use our images for advertising purposes (the extent of which was admittedly less than we first thought, but still), there was a visceral reaction for a reason. It felt like the very person who gave us the camera just opened our high school locker and ripped off all the photos lining the inside. We create and experience memories in different ways than we used to, much of it is happening online now, via social networks — and they were created with the intention of evoking this emotion out of us. And so when those social networks do anything with these nostalgic status updates, these cherished photos, these personal check-ins other than sit back and allow us to digitally scrapbook away, we get angry.

Here’s the thing: We can’t anymore. Maybe a couple of years ago we could, but ignorance is no longer bliss. You don’t have to like what social networks are doing with your data (or will do with you data – it will be leveraged, eventually; it will all be leveraged. Trust.) But you do have to accept it — if you want to use them, that is. If a social platform wants to be successful and iterate at the pace and feature push we’ve become accustomed to, it has to make money. It’s a necessary evil and it’s a price we’ll have to pay to use most of them. The days of social networking innocence were short and they are gone. Now, for better or worse, it’s nothing personal – it’s just business.