Instagram’s “suicide note” teaches us that nothing comes for free

My first Instagram post, October 16, 2011
My first Instagram post, October 2011

Shortly after I posted my first photo to Instagram, I realized that it was a different kind of photo app. It didn’t just put a vaguely retro filter of my choice on my iPhone’s pristine images; it immediately connected me to a like-minded community of photographers while seamlessly linking to my other social networks.

I loved discovering that people whom I admired professionally were also talented photographers. I rejoiced to watch friends—some of whom had never believed photography was for them—compose amazing pictures. It was a network in which I didn’t follow friends out of a sense of obligation but out of appreciation for their perspective. Daily, my feed would fill up with amazing snaps of the unremarkable turned artistic: graffiti, bowls of soup, sleeping dogs, street signs.

Plus, in documenting everyday life and posting it for the world to see, I felt reconnected to my days as a college photojournalist, with a roll of Tri-X in my Canon EOS and the challenge to find the perfect shot. In an instant, with my phone, I could bring my little circle of followers into my moment.

Carrie Brownstein performs with Wild Flag, April 2012
Carrie Brownstein performs with Wild Flag, April 2012

I envied the creators of Instagram for coming up with something so perfect, and when I first learned of their sale to Facebook for $1 billion, I wondered about what would happen next. Given the nature of our data-driven online world, I can’t say I’m surprised by Instagram’s so-called “suicide note” this week: new terms of service stipulating that my photos can be used for commercial purposes without my knowledge or permission.

I’m not mad, just sad. For a minute, I felt a special connection to a community, not unlike those days in the darkroom, stumbling in the half-darkness amid drying negatives, trays of chemicals, and other photographers, each trying to turn out just the right print. We weren’t seeking personal gain; we just wanted the approval of our peers.

But now I remember: I’ve been on Flickr since 2003, and a paying member since 2005. I can control the rights to each and every one of my photos, and they just launched a sweet new app that offers almost everything that Instagram does. It’s not perfect, and it’s not as easy to use. The minority among my Instagram friends who care about these changes may form a diaspora, never to “like” each other’s photos again, but if you’re looking for me, you can find me on Flickr at Mind_TheGap.

Update: Well, that was fast: according to the AP, Instagram is backing away from using our photos in ads. I suppose I won’t be deleting my account (yet), but let’s face it: nothing comes for free, and the price we pay isn’t always material.

Selections from a year and two months on Instagram:

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