The Hyperbole and the Damage Done

There are many lessons to be learned from the Instagram TOS (Terms of Service) debacle that has been playing out on social media over the last two days. Chief among them is this:

The social web is not a good source of legal interpretation and factual information.

For all the greatness of the social web it has some very big flaws, one of which is that we are still wearing our newspaper goggles. What I mean by that is that we are still treating information provided to us from seemingly reliable sources as if that information is in fact reliable. This is a historical artefact from a time when news and information came to us from large news and publishing conglomerates with tight editorial guidelines and requirements for fact checking and source research. This is no longer the reality we live in. Most of the information you’ll find on the web is the exact opposite: Poorly researched, often incorrect, and largely based on non-expert opinion and wild speculation.

Such is the case of the interpretation of the new Instagram TOS. And the damage might be irreparable.

If you are not familiar with what happened, here is the gist of it:

The Hyperbole, a.k.a. “Instagram wants to steal your photos!!!!!!!!”

On Monday December 17 Instagram released their new Terms of Service agreement. Among the changes was a new sentence:

“To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, 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.”

This was widely interpreted as “Instagram reserves the right to take your photos, sell them for large piles of cash to a company you disapprove of, and have that company use them along with your name on billboard posters thereby robbing you of your copyright and earning money on your creativity.

Completely ridiculous. And incorrect.

The social web responded with hundreds of articles on how to bail from Instagram, what other services you can use instead of Instagram to post photos of your feet and food and friends, and how to delete your Instagram account forever so that they can never exploit you. And judging from reaction on the web, many people followed that advice.

The Reality, a.k.a. You Don’t Understand Legalese

Of course this interpretation was total rubbish. But it was also great fodder for the social web. Every gadget/tech/web blog wrote extensive articles on it, and everyone and their mother voiced their outrage over this vile injustice on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and yes, on Instagram.

Then the people at The Verge took a step back and said “Hm. This doesn’t really make any sense. Why would Instagram commit social suicide like this? Maybe someone got something wrong.” (I’m assuming that’s the type of conversation that takes place at The Verge. I could be wrong.) They read the TOS again and found that not surprisingly the hyperbole was just that: Hyperbole. The reality was widely different. For that take read the excellent article aptly titled “No, Instagram can’t sell your photos: what the new terms of service really mean“. This was soon followed by “Instagram says ‘it’s not our intention to sell your photos’” which referred to this statement directly from Instagram.

For those of us who voiced caution about the hyperbole this comes as a vindication. For the many who instantly jumped on the band wagon and deleted their Instagram accounts, it is a sobering wake up call. For Instagram and all other online services with murky revenue models it is a rude awakening: Faced with complicated legalese, people trust anyone with a cool logo to be a legal expert and act on information obtained from said cool-logo-owning entity without checking the facts.

Be like a philosopher to avoid looking like an idiot …

One of the things you learn when you study philosophy is that before you make any judgement or take any action you should take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. That means questioning whether your understanding is the correct one or even if you are equipped to understand what you are seeing. It means questioning the sources of your information. And most importantly it means stepping in the other party’s shoes and looking at it from their perspective. Few actions are committed without forethought, and before you make any final judgements or act on any apparent fact it is vital that you understand the reasoning behind what you see.

In the Instagram case the widespread interpretation of the TOS – the one that claimed Instagram would steal your photos and sell them to the highest bidder – only makes sense from the perspective of a paranoid person thinking everyone is out to get him. From a rational cool headed vantage point a few steps back there is obviously more to the story. But that isn’t what brings readers to the blogs and clicks on ads, so the hyperbole wins every time.

… or be like both Mulder and Scully

(Pardon the ridiculous and old pop culture reference here. I’m watching The X-Files on Netflix.) When it comes to information you read on the web you need to be both like Fox Mulder and like Dana Scully. Like Mulder you should trust no one, and like Scully you should assume there is always a logical explanation. That way you might avoid deleting your accounts only to realize you did it for no good reason and now you can’t get them back.

For an alternate take on the story, check out fellow Vancouverite Rob Cottingham’s piece
Terms of service changes deserve more than just a shrug and a click.