Things are getting ugly in Instagramland.
The photo-sharing site's controversial new policy that some users intrepreted as allowing the company to profit from sharing members' photos with advertisers has sparked a user revolt. Budding photographers blacked out their home pages in protest, or left neatly cropped photos of obscene hand gestures where they'd once posted cute puppies or dreamy cloudscapes. Some of the site's rockstars threatened to pick up and leave. And the blogosphere filled with angst over what many see as another example of Big Social Networking exploiting its loyal customers for the corporate bottom line.
In a blog post Tuesday afternoon titled "Thank you, and we're listening," Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom tried to ease the fears of the site's millions of passionate users, saying "legal documents are easy to misinterpret."
"One of the main reasons these documents don't take effect immediately, but instead 30 days from now, is that we wanted to make sure you had an opportunity to raise any concerns," Systrom wrote. "You've done that and are doing that, and that will help us provide the clarity you deserve. ... Please stay tuned for updates coming soon."
In his note, Systrom apologized for the confusing language, stating "to be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos." But he said the company was exploring ways to "experiment with innovative advertising" and that Instagram was founded to become a business.
Many users felt betrayed by Instagram, which was purchased earlier this year by Facebook in a deal originally valued at $1 billion in cash and stock. Their creative output, they felt, was at risk of being exploited by a service they had trusted with their most personal photographs.
"I think the outrage is warranted because these new rules represent such a sea change from what Instagram was when it first started," said Richard Koci Hernandez, assistant professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and an Emmy Award-winning photojournalist, speaking before Systrom's post. His iconic black-and-white portraits are followed by 163,000 Instagram members.
It was one sentence added to the site's terms of service this week that sparked most of the anger among many of the service's 30 million members: "You agree that a business may pay Instagram to display your photos in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions without any compensation to you."
Before long, Instagram was reeling from user backlash. Some members created satirical ads featuring their own photos of a half-eaten cookie or a cappuccino with artwork etched in the cream. One Twitter user took a shot at the founder of Facebook, writing: "Hello #instagram can you please sell this picture to Mark Zuckerberg?"
The user included a photo of a raised middle finger.
"Before Instagram become part of Facebook, the terms of service were always creator-friendly. It was never, ever Facebook-like. They were always your photos and would remain your photos," Koci Hernandez said.
"Now," he worried, "that's changing," adding that he was considering deleting his Instagram account and heading to another service.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.