Instagram and Online Service Principles

My final Instagram post

Another day, another free technology service choosing to sell it users. Oh, Instagram. There you go predictably following in the well-trodden, privacy-violating, user-unfriendly steps of your new daddy, Facebook.

You For Sale

And as other have already noted, in the face of ever-more-aggressive moves by online services to “monetize” their users, “if you’re not paying, you’re the product.” It’s a sentiment also shared by writer Douglas Rushkoff, who, in an alternately entertaining and sobering keynote rant at WebVisions 2011 in Portland, defined the problem as both a warning and a challenge to us all: “Program or Be Programmed.”

This Is Not Your Beautiful House

I like to think of the issue as “Own or Be Owned.” If you don’t have your own domain name, you’re putting your online identity in the hands of your landlords at every digital service in which you participate. Google yourself and see: are your social profiles on third-party sites the first results that are returned?

Your landlords may be cool and all — hell, you might even know some of them personally from the awesome early Internet times™ that Anil Dash recently reminisced about. But, cliche or not, Money Changes Everything. And your cool landlord can go from being cool to kind of a dick to slumlord in no time.

But you don’t have to simply sit back and become a product, perhaps complaining loudly while ultimately changing little about your online behavior. Or worse than simple inaction, becoming so jaded as to not care anymore. Nor do you need to become a digital hermit eschewing all contact with dirty, dirty commercial online services that nonetheless seem very useful indeed to people you like and respect. Sure, you can participate. Just don’t commit.

Don’t Worry About the Facebook

No matter what some politicians may say, companies are not people, and I don’t need to treat them as such. Apply the same skepticism and care when evaluating online services as you do in any other area of life where there are real values at stake that you care about.

Many of us apply personal principles when choosing food to eat based on the source or how animals involved in its creation were treated. Why not exhibit the same care towards your personal identity as your diet? Granted, this is much easier if you’re a geek, like me, because setting up your own web site is a relatively trivial task.

My Online Service Principles

In that vein, I’ve put together what I’m calling my “online service principles.” As principles, they’re things I care about and use to guide my engagement with, and usage of, the multitude of social and other online services scattered across the Internet. But they’re also practical guidelines that can (usually) be easily measured via review of such services’ online user agreements and privacy policies, as well as choices they make in their products’ interface design and PR folks’ external communications via blogs and other news channels.

Right now, I’ve come up with five principles that encapsulate pretty well the things I value online:

1. Ownership
I own my content and maintain my copyright. Anything I post on a service is used in some way as part of that service, but ultimately it’s mine.

2. Control
I control my content, as well as my likeness, and can do with it as I see fit. I can post my content in a context relevant to the nature of the service (e.g. posting a photo for it be seen by friends browsing my photo stream), but it’s not okay to use it in another context altogether — say, for advertising purposes — without my consent.

3. Portability
I have the ability to move all of my content generated using a service to another platform or my own personal archive with a minimum of friction. That means downloading or exporting a database, not cutting-and-pasting or manual “Save As..” operations. Because, as per #1, I own my content, and you should make it easy for me to get at it.

4. Openness
There are external APIs, news feeds or other input/output hooks that both enable some level of customization of my experience as well as demonstrate an interest in engaging with the larger Internet community. This principle is one that others may care about less, but I personally am not, and have never been a fan of walled-garden communities. I’m an unabashed web fan, and I seek to support those who are the same.

5. Transparency
The service is proactive about notifying me of changes that may materially affect my decision to keep using the service as per above. Notifications are done in language that is human-understandable, and user controls for making changes are labeled in a way that is clear and located in an easy-to-reach area of the site.

Walking the Walk

Now, does ever service I use meet all of these principles? Of course not. They’re not a litmus test. But they provide a compass I can use for regularly evaluating not just my usage, but my level of engagement with different sites and services.For example, I’m not a fan of Facebook, as I feel they are one of the worst offenders, in terms of privacy violations and lack of transparency to users. But it’s the site that many of my friends use to communicate, share, and send digital invites. To remove myself entirely would cut me out of a significant part of that social activity, so I maintain an account I check occasionally: when I get an email about being “tagged,” when I get an invitation. But then I follow-up, if needed, via email. And I choose my own places — this blog, my Twitter account — for conversing and sharing.

Most important is that I get to choose. I can allocate my time and energy to the services who match my values most closely. And I often pay for the privilege, as in the case of Flickr. Yesterday, I re-upped my Pro subscription when I realized that I wanted to share pictures from a recent trip of mine to India with my friends, on my terms. In light of the Instagram policy changes, serendipitous timing indeed.

So yes, I’ll pay, whether for a Flickr Pro account or my own domain name and web host. Because I’m tired of gambling on other companies to value the same things I do. Whenever possible, I’m choosing to take the safest bet: on myself.