Why Instagram Will Never Be the Same

Even though Instagram has both apologized and now walked back its terms of service — CEO Kevin Systrom announced last night that his company would revert to almost the exact language as before this week's mutiny — the photo-sharing app has given its once universally loyal users an idea of what to expect (at some point) from a tech universe very much prioritizing money over user experience. Before Monday afternoon, when Instagram unveiled a new privacy policy that suggested its users' photos could be used as a kind of advertising, the app had a cultish following — a "community," and the same one that made Facebook offer $1 billion for it in April. By the time its users woke up Friday morning, if a couple feeds and some influential tech types are to be believed, Instagrammers were still deeply frustrated that monetization was being put ahead of, you know, some nice filtered photos and their friends.

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Even Thursday night's move to revert to the kind of new-old terms of service still shows that Instagram may be open to more advertising ideas its users won't like — as long as it tells them first. From Systrom's blog post: 

Going forward, rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed, we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work.

Translation, according to AllThingsD's Peter Kafka: Instagram wants you to feel better, but if you don't want ads, don't look here. Just because they're trying not to upset you doesn't mean Instagram won't — and it's time for the service to make money; Facebook says so.

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But of course users aren't going to like what Instagram "comes back" with — the current setup couldn't be any better. And in a way it's difficult not to blame ourselves for getting into this situation. How, ask The Atlantic's Derek Thompson and several others the morning after, can we expect to use highly popular and highly functional web- and mobile-based services... without paying for them at some point? Perhaps this morning's XKCD comic (above) make this point the most clearly: in outrage, there is often futility.

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Plenty of power users have stuck to their principles and abandoned Instagram altogether. Other similar apps have seen their memberships increasing already, as Bits Blogs Jenna Wortham and Nicole Perlroth note. (And Flickr might just be worth it.) But we suspect that Instagram will continue to grow and most of the now forever-frustrated users won't leave over this week's dust-up. Even if other photo-sharing apps have seen a surge in downloads, it doesn't mean everyone's going to use them after playing around over a couple of eggnogs next week. And you can have more than one photo app per cellphone, after all. And for now, at least, Instagram has all the right kinds of users and is still giving them what they want — for free. That the relationship will change when it adds advertising or a premium charge means that the tipping point is to come, that Facebook just needs to say when. Then again, nobody's really left Facebook yet, have they?

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