Instagram turns evil; people do care

I just wanted to throw down a quick rant on the Instagram fiasco, for the sake of emotional cleansing if nothing else. Apparently Instagram now owns all your pictures, and there’s no way to opt out. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a backlash going on.

In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading online about this, there’s a theme of ‘Maybe now people will FINALY care about having control of their online data’. There is also a more cynical flip-side to this theme: ‘Even though Instagram’s behaviour is shocking and preposterous they will probably get away with it because most people are too apathetic to complain’.

Danah Boyd, one of my personal heroes, tweeted:

I have to admit that I’m loving the #instagram backlash. Fingers crossed that it results in users better understanding their rights.

while an article called Instagram Turns Evil, And It’s All Our Fault is doing the rounds on social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s tweet is optimistic while the Dan Lyons article is cynical, but they both have the same core idea: that people don’t care about online privacy or about how their online data is used, and that Facebook and their ilk can basically do what they want to users because no-one cares. In this view, the apathy and laziness of most ordinary people is the reason why we can’t have nice things.

I think this idea is deeply wrong, counterproductive, and dangerous.

I’m arguably unusual in that I’m a techie with a mostly non-techie friends. My friends are smart, thoughtful, politically aware people. When I talk to them about issues like online privacy, walled gardens, and open data formats, they are not apathetic. On the contrary, they are very interested, very concerned, and hungry for information. They want me to tell them which social networking sites are good on issues like privacy, and which are bad.

They’re also utterly confused about the social web. They’re smart people (smarter than me in most cases), they use Ubuntu and know the difference between open source and closed source, they’re interested in these issues and they’ve made an effort to learn about them. But when it comes to social networking websites there is a huge amount of confusion – confusion which Facebook, Twitter, and others have gone to great lengths to create.

The list of dirty tricks is familiar to people who are interested in Internet freedom issues: Facebook started off in 2006 with quite a good set-up where you could fairly easily control who saw your posts, but continually changed the rules without telling people they were doing it. Twitter built an open API, got lots of third-party developers to build apps that made Twitter more popular, then shut that API down once they were big enough that it became more profitable to operate as a walled garden. Google advertised Google+ as a “social network”, and then did an about-face and said it was a real-names-only “identity service”. People signed up for Gmail and didn’t realise that their Gmail account was going to get automatically integrated with ten other services provided by Google. Etc. etc. etc.

All of these dirty tricks are announced as being ‘improvements’, if they are announced at all. Even as a computerally knowledgeable person I found it a hard to understand and keep up with all these shenanigans. Think how much harder it must be to understand this stuff for people who lack the technical vocabulary to describe it.

So people are confused. Not because they are stupid or apathetic, but because some of the most powerful companies on the planet have spent billions to create confusion.

Just to give a few examples what the social web might look like to people without a technical background, in my experience:

– When a website does something the user didn’t want or doesn’t understand, very often what the user thinks is not “They screwed me over, those bastards!”, but “I must be doing the wrong thing” or “maybe it’s supposed to do that”.

– A lot of people vaguely know that Facebook is bad on privacy, but they aren’t clear about why.

– Lots of people know that Facebook makes money from advertising, but don’t realise that the advertising is targeted, and that they can sell your information to third parties.

– People generally don’t know about Facebook’s bait-and-switch trick with promoted posts. When I describe it the response is usually: “Are you serious? They can do that!?”

– A lot of people know about cookies, but are shocked when I tell them that when you go to a website it can read all your cookies, not just the ones originating from that site.

– The concept “federation” is a really hard one to explain. When I tell people is open while Twitter isn’t, their eyes glaze over and I can tell what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to them. Which is fair enough because at present’s federation is mostly theoretical – I mean, just how many StatusNet servers are out there that are open to members of the public? To most people looks like Twitter but with a crappier interface, and none of their friends are on it.

Not only do the big social media companies sow as much confusion as possible, but they keep changing the rules, throwing us off balance. People have been conditioned to feel helpless, and to think that the Internet is too complicated for them to understand.

The idea that people are not willing to pay for social networking is simply untrue, in fact lots of people would jump at the chance to pay £10 per 6 months for a free and open social network – but only if it was really free and open, and definitely not going to turn into the next Big Evil Internet Thing in a year’s time. And it would have to work. It would have to provide the social networking experience that people want to have.

There is an ugly tendency among techies to assume that everyone who isn’t a computery type is unintelligent. This is ridiculous. Of course my friends don’t understand what I mean when I say that exposing a public API isn’t as good as making the source code itself open source. Just like I don’t have a clue what my neuroscientist friend is talking about when she describes her research, and I don’t understand my friend the German Literature scholar when she talks about… whatever it is she does.

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that the biggest barriers to a free and open social web are not technical, but social. Maybe instead of hacking on Buddycloud or Diaspora, we should be hacking on people, on the way we relate to each-other. What if, instead of jeering at non-technical people for being apathetic or stupid, we reached out to them, made a serious effort to explain these issues to them in their own language, and sincerely and humbly asked them what kind of web services they actually want to use would look like?


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