Oh, Instagram…

I'm sure by now you've heard the brouhaha over Instagram's initial policy change which implied (if not outright stated) that participants would be agreeing to allow the company the right to sell their private images for commercial use. The resulting hue and outcry was quick and decisive, prompting the CEO to offer a retraction later that day to the tune of "No, no, no, what we meant to say was that we'd never do that." Reporters offer the explanation that services like these need to make money and so are learning to do so beyond banner ads and selling user-generated content is the next logical leap (also given that they'd been bought by Facebook I believe is partly to blame for this mentality). I do not use Instagram, but I know many professional photographers and artists--not to mention fellow writers, family and friends--who do and as a creator of intellectual property myself, I had this insight to share:

In the words of Col. Sherman T. Potter, "Horse Hockey!"

Sometimes I fear that we've become so marinated in a cultural "truth" that folks fail to see the crazy. The Emperor has no clothes, people, and, no, that's not a new fashion statement. The fact that words or ideas come out of your brain and enter the realm of the Rest of the World does not, in fact, mean that they belong to the conduit of exchange; that's the means of travel, not the content, and let's not confuse the two. For example, when you buy a stamp, you expect for it to pay for the successful delivery of your letter (or, most often, bill or card) and do not--and should not--think that it gives the Postal Service the right to peruse your correspondence and sell the contents of your letter asking Aunt Mabel for dating advice to a singles' website or an HPV drug company. Nor would you want Ma Bell or any of her resulting brood to wiretap your conversations in order to create voice-overs for TV travel ads or greeting cards. They do not have this right. And if they asked you if they could do this, you'd laugh in their proverbial faceless faces. And even if they clearly and transparently ask your permission to do so, why would this seem like a "logical" thing to do? This goes beyond my earlier squigginess where artists get no compensation for their images being used by bloggers across the Internet, where neither party is making money off of the image itself, this is about *someone else* getting paid for an artist's work and the artist/author getting no compensation whatsoever. This is understood when you are a subcontractor, but not when you are a customer. And when a business comes back with "Well, we have to make money somehow so if a customer chooses to use our service, then they should be okay with this or they can go elsewhere," I feel like we're somehow missing the point of the discussion. Your business' need to make money should be dependent on what your business produces. An airline should not be trying to generate revenue by asking their passengers to flap their arms or make model planes for the local souvenir shop.

I understand business. I grew up with business. I had my own business for almost a decade. My family's income is currently solely dependent on our self-employed businesses. I am quite familiar with the need to generate income in creative, work-smarter-not-harder ways, but this is liquid madness. The idea that communicating with others and the content of that exchange can be "owned" by the method of communication company negates the reason for communication, placing an effective gag order on creativity and forcing hands to stay close to hearts for fear of losing intellectual property rights. Even in this culture of "global community" and "information exchange," we rationally know that the idea belongs to the originator and not the cable company through which it traveled. The business community banks on artists being creative souls and not business-savvy. They shrug at artists as if to say, "Of course, silly people, you agreed to sign away that right in order to get all this great publicity!" I can't begin to tell you how many times as a public speaker, health educator, or author I've been told that while they couldn't pay me, by doing an event I'd be getting free publicity! If I had a nickel for every pitch like that...well, then that would be the point of this little blog rant. Because however else we might arrange something that could be mutually-beneficial, book sales or package deals or partnerships with other organizations, the simple truth is that I can't pay my bills with free publicity and neither could they.

"Starving artist" is not my business model.

Big business taking advantage of individual rights is not new or surprising...and maybe that's what's surprising: that it's not so surprising. What does this say about our culture and our values? What's more valuable than what you produce as a unique individual? Your thoughts, your feelings, your insights, your art? Will those of your who use Instagram continue to do so? Or will you check out other options like Flickr or Eyeem? Or is there some new way you can tell us what you're up to? In my world, this is the current debate between traditional and self (or "indie") publishing: what do we gain or lose by putting it out there ourselves without being gouged by Big Business in any of its incarnations.

Instagram tried to pull it off. Don't let them. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I am.


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