Tag Archives: photography

A few thoughts on Instagram’s TOS problem

Can you name a successful Web service whose fortunes fell because they updated their Terms of Service?

Neither can I, but since Instagram announced proposed changes to its TOS, I’ve read a lot of commentary about how they’re alienating prolific users who post high-quality content. (A few will leave and other shutterbugs will fill the vacuum.)

Working with lawyers, I’ve drafted TOS documents for several companies. Users “click to agree” almost anything without reading it first, but that’s never stopped me from explaining policies clearly and simply. Because I’ve been on both sides of this issue, TOS changes just don’t get me worked up. As one wise soul put it, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”

I’m willing to bet that the proposed changes weren’t reviewed externally before they were announced. A TOS isn’t proprietary information, so why not recruit a working group of power users to ask them if they can work within the new guidelines? Um, Instagram has formed 1:1 relationships with the members who make the service interesting, right?

Around midday yesterday, Instagram updated its blog to clarify the TOS changes. This was the right call — if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. I didn’t care for the tone used in the post; purely a matter of taste, but when I flip through my PR swatch book, Condescending Corporate isn’t a first choice.

“Thank you, and we’re listening” is a patronizing way to address angry users, as are statements like “legal documents are hard to understand.” I’m just glad they didn’t include “math is hard.” There’s also too much text; if users don’t read the TOS closely, I doubt this co-founder’s message got more than a quick scan. Each of his points could have been reduced to a couple of sentences. I’m sure this post was sincere, but it wasn’t persuasive.

After reading the last paragraph, a reasonable person might assume that the hue and cry raised by users would lead Instagram to revisit and change proposed policies. That’s misleading. Give the community a perceived sense of ownership and they will become engaged and passionate. Give them an overblown sense of how much they direct the company’s management and direction, and they’ll feel betrayed and ignored.

What would I have done differently? I’d have produced something more direct, like an AMA session on Reddit to discuss the proposed changes ad nauseum. A 90-second YouTube video would have had more personality and could have elicited empathy. (Moreover, YouTube’s analytics can help determine which parts of your argument resonate with your audience.)

The section of the blog post explaining that companies won’t use Instagram photos in ads read like pure CYA: if they NEVER had any intention of licensing photos to third parties for ads, why did the language appear in the revised TOS? Why not just come clean and say, “we changed our minds.”

If I were King of Instagram, I’d have put together a Town Hall so the company could speak directly to users without a PR filter. Ask someone like Xeni Jardin or Kara Swisher to moderate, and suddenly, Instagram is a steward of discussions about user-generated content. I’d even have called Apple to see if I could stream the event to stores in top markets and would have used the service to promote the event.

Regardless of what I’d have done, Instagram will weather this; I’d be surprised if their growth declines as a result of the TOS controversy.

Every communication crisis is an opportunity to engage your community. Don’t just wipe the egg off your face; make an effort to reach people where they are and be as clear as you can.



Filed under Community Management, Internet

Serendipity with the South End Rowing Club

By 6:20, we’d set up our tripods along the Embarcadero behind Waterbar and Epic Steakhouse. I’ve never patronized either place, but the views couldn’t be beat; we were standing a hundred or so yards from the westernmost tower of the Bay Bridge.

I arrived with a clear idea of the shot I wanted to get; foremost in my mind was capturing the the sunrise over the Oakland hills as the light glanced off Guardian, one of two SFFD fireboats. I pass this spot twice each weekday as my streetcar takes me to the train station. I can tell myself a thousand stories in the time it takes me to reach my desk each morning, so the city’s only wharfside fire station captured my imagination.

As I attached my POPA iPhone accessory to the tripod, a splash of color caught my eye; an aquamarine Chrysler New Yorker convertible coasted in off the Embarcadero and docked in front of the fire station.

The driver spoke to his passengers; a couple of middle-aged guys wearing Speedos and flannel shirts. Within a few minutes, about 15 more converged on our location, some in wetsuits, others wearing simple swimsuits and warmup gear. Everyone wore or carried yellow bathing caps.

Cynthia and I realized our postcard shot was being eclipsed by something much more spontaneous. One of the polar bears noticed me scanning his crowd with interest.

“Welcome to San Francisco!” he said, arms wide.

“I’ve lived here for 16 years,” I said, “but you guys definitely have my attention. This is much more interesting than the guy who unicycles to Caltrain.”

“Made you look!” he said, grinning.

I asked what I was watching; a woman wearing a tank suit and an insulated Gore-Tex robe explained that this was an annual swim event for the South End Rowing Club; they jump in the water near the Bay Bridge and swim north and west until coming ashore at their clubhouse just off Hyde Street at Aquatic Park.

“Wait, you do this just once a year?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Lucky you!”

By this point, most of the swimmers had converged on the fire station. They were about 60/40 male/female, ranging in age from about 40 to 75. Friends paired up for earnest conversations while a few stretched hamstrings against fences and benches. Others kept to themselves, rubbing hands together and looking silently out at the water.

A handful of sea kayaks and Zodiacs coasted parallel to the seawall and encircled the fireboat. An elderly woman on one of the inflatable motorboats called up to friends on shore who responded with a headcount.

“We got two more!” called out a near-naked man in his early fifties. I tried picturing him 24 hours from now as he munched on a bagel and read the Wall Street Journal next to me on Caltrain.

The older woman in the Zodiac waved her hand to acknowledge and jotted on a clipboard. By this time, I’d started mixing freely with the swimmers. I’d got as many shots of my fireboat as I needed, and I was starting to share their anticipation.

By 6:30, the swimmers were in front of the fire station, knocking on the door. Moments later, a sleepy fireman rolled the sliding door open and ushered everyone through. We walked through a gleaming firehouse to a cluttered pier where club members boarded my fireboat.

I stood midship as the swimmers swarmed the bow and jockeyed for position. Spotters in boats and kayaks shouted encouragement as the swimmers took turns leaping into San Francisco Bay. I looked over my shoulder at the city behind me and noticed that the arms and feet churning the water had momentarily drowned out the outboard engines.

Twenty-four swimmers moved like a pod of dolphins away from the boat. They had a multitude of styles and techniques, but the end result was the same: forward.

I found myself along on deck with a yawning fireman who looked like he wanted to get back in bed.

Cynthia and I drove to Aquatic Park to drink coffee and waited for the swimmers to arrive. We walked through the South End boathouse and staked out spots on the club’s tiny beach as we watched the line of swimmers cut a beeline through the breakwater and into Aquatic Park.

I felt that flutter of anticipation again, along with a flush of admiration for these strangers who’d decided to get up early on a Sunday morning to swim around downtown San Francisco. Watching them come ashore was slightly thrilling, even if some of them seemed slightly blasé about the outing.

“Hey, you look familiar,” said the guy who’d welcomed me to San Francisco about an hour before. He emerged from the water like a sardonic Venus on the half-shell, adjusting his tiny trunks and wiping away the grime that collected under his nose.

A tall woman who landed in the first wave stood next to me for a moment, watching the new arrivals. She fluttered her right hand at another woman who stood on a pier with a clipboard checking folks in: “I’m heading back out!” she said, walking casually back into the water. Clipboard woman shot her a thumbs-up and went back to her accounting.

Some days, it pays to get up early.


Filed under California, Personal, San Francisco