Tuesday, December 18, 2012

11:30 PM
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Instagram appears to be going through a sea change in popular perception at the moment -- and not one for the better.

First came founder Kevin Systrom's active and combative decision to cut support for Twitter cards, a move which seemed designed to anger and make less useful a service loved by many millions of his users.

(Do you look at many Instagrams in your tweet stream these days? No, me neither. As I tweeted last week, it's like watching two old friends who aren't speaking pass in the street; strange and sad.)

Was it retribution for Twitter daring to develop photo filters of its own, which also happened to come to fruition last week? Nobody knows. Systrom just kept calling it the "evolution" of Instagram, whereas in fact it was the exact opposite.

Then this weekend, a disturbing report in the New York Times all but accused Systrom of perjury. The Grey Lady doesn't write such things lightly, and indeed the evidence is damning -- Systrom appears to have received a $525 million acquisition term sheet with Twitter before doubling his money with Facebook, contrary to what he told the California Corporations Department three times under oath during an acquisition investigation.

And on Monday came the latest blow: Instagram's new privacy policy, which kicks in on Jan. 16, got its first airing. And for any one of the photo-sharing app's 100 million users who want little or nothing to do with Facebook, it's bad news.

Systrom now has the right to share all your information with his boss, Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, all of it, in most all the ways you can imagine -- to the point where the pair will soon have the right to sell your likeness to advertisers without your knowledge.

In shockingly brazen language, the new policy says: "You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you."

Let's take a moment to digest that. And pause to imagine a future you flopping on the couch, opening the laptop and seeing an ad -- one of those faux-amateur, gauzy collections of images of everyday life used to sell just about everything. Only one of the images is you, or your spouse, or your kid from when she lost her tooth the other month.

It isn't necessarily the exposure of your image to a wide number of people -- after all, that's what you hoped for when you posted it to Instagram, right? It's the fact that money has changed hands regarding an image you took of you, your family, your friends. Not only did you fail to see a red cent from the deal, but the whole experience of taking and sharing the pic seems somehow soiled.

And what can you do? You can't reject the privacy policy. (Since Facebook isn't a democracy any more, you can't even vote on it.) You can only vote with your feet and never use Instagram again. Even following a link to an Instagram pic constitutes acceptance of the policy.

I get that Instagram needs to start making money for Facebook sooner rather than later. I get that the most likely use case is an image you took being employed in a tiny Facebook ad targeted at you. I get that this sort of thing should have been expected when the deal went through, and that Facebook itself does a lot of this sort of thing already.

I also get that Systrom is a nice guy personally. He seemed amiable enough when we chatted at a Facebook party last week. But I wonder if he is fundamentally misreading the loyalties of his users, and how much brazen change they will withstand in a short space of time.

There are tens of millions of people who only downloaded the app in the last year. As any marketer will tell you, that means you can't take them for granted; there simply hasn't been enough time to build a deep connection to the brand. You may feel deeply in love with Instagram, but you're still in the honeymoon phase.

Especially not with rival services suddenly cropping up everywhere -- and not just any rival services, but Twitter and a newly-resurgent Flickr. Two ready-made social networks for photos, two alternate centers of gravity that could start syphoning Instagrammers today. (If you don't think that can happen in the fickle world of social media, you're probably not too familiar with the names Friendster or MySpace.) The only question is how many.

If they'd flipped the switch on these privacy changes immediately, many of us would be none the wiser, and most of us would shrug. But by waiting until Jan. 16, Systrom and Facebook could have provided a rallying point for Instagram's opponents. Users have got a few weeks to think about whether they could live without Instagram, and to try the other guys.

It could come to nothing, of course, and Instagram may continue its growth as before. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a #jan16 campaign gain popularity among the pissed-off photographers of Twitter. (The social-media inspired revolution in Egypt, two years ago next month, also revolved around a single hashtag symbolizing a day of action -- #jan25.)

Are these changes enough to make you try the rival services, or are you still just a fool for Instagram filters? Let us know in the comments.