Instagram terms of useThe debate simmering over Instagram’s pending terms-of-service changes shouldn’t come as a surprise. These days, changes to a site’s or app’s terms of service get a lot more scrutiny than they used to.

True, most of us just grumble a little at the inconvenience of a nag screen popping up, then click through without reading. (And who can blame us?) But with a growing awareness of issues ranging from online privacy to usage rights, more and more people give amended user agreements a good hard look.

And when they find something they don’t like, there’s a receptive audience of users ready to spread the word, often on those same platforms. Sometimes those concerns arise from overblown, out-of-context misinterpretations of legal language. Other times, they’re just plain delusional – and if you posted one of those Facebook-is-now-a-publicly-traded-company disclaimers, you probably got an earful from your friends to that effect. (I suspect the issue around Instagram using photos in advertising has less to do with conscripting your next coffee photo as a Starbucks billboard, and more with serving “Rob Cottingham also followed [insert brand here]”-style “social ads”.)

Yet many user agreements really are downright abusive. They’re drafted by the company running the service, and are pretty much always skewed in their favour. Reading them, it’s hard not to think that the company’s legal department drafted them with one mandate: “whatever we can get away with.” The site Terms of Service; Didn’t Read documents the ways a range of services put users at a disadvantage (along with a handful that actually do a pretty good job of balancing conflicting interests).

The issues are real. But when people complain about changes to user agreements, as many are doing about Instagram today (the EFF outlines its concerns here), there’s often a backlash. They’re accused of whining about the free service they’re receiving, trying to prevent the company running it from making a profit, and having way too high an opinion of their content’s value. (If you’re looking for a post that hits the trifecta, with a trollish dollop of sneering, try this one.)

To take the first two arguments on quickly:

  • It’s a free service: Yes, a service like Instagram doesn’t charge a fee. You don’t pay in money. Instead, you pay in time, creative effort and attention. And that, in turn, creates the community without which the service would be worth far, far less. (See “Just because there’s no price tag doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it,” a post I wrote three years ago.)
  • Companies need to make money, you commie freak: Of course they do. Even the most co-operatively-owned company needs to bring in enough income to keep the lights on. (Unless it realizes an indirect return for its owners in some other way, an idea we’ll set that aside for another day.) But one-sided exploitation isn’t the only business model out there (and in the participation business, it’s a risky one). Companies and individuals strike mutually advantageous arrangements every day; Flickr’s deal with Getty images treats its users as partners.

But it’s that third “Get over yourself and your crappy pictures of food” argument that I find especially toxic. (This is apart from the objection that, if the content users are generating have no value, why put the rights to use it commercially on the table at all?) The backlash against user advocacy plays into the idea that all that time and creative energy we’re pouring into Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Cheezburger, Flickr and the many other services out there, and all of the images, videos and stories we’re sharing are worthless.

Sure, a lot of the content being shared is frivolous and silly, or executed with little thought and effort. So is a lot of human conversation and activity; we’re playful by nature, and we’ll sometimes dabble at things without ever being good at it. (Also, if you ever have a look at some of the drek that often gets pawned off as children’s entertainment, you’ll look at LOLcats and Twitter memes with a whole new level of respect.)

And all that light conversation keeps the channels open for the more significant stuff. I discover deeply moving personal stories, glimpses of awesome beauty, laugh-out-loud humour and unexpected insights through my social networks every day. They come from people who don’t always have the talent and experience to craft a polished, professional piece, but whose distinctive perspectives and voices outweigh those deficiencies.

One of the most powerful things about the social media revolution has been to give those voices an audience. And whether that audience is a small circle of friends and family or a network of hundreds of thousands, it has opened up the world of creative self-expression to hundreds of millions of people, drastically lowering the barriers to participation.

One barrier remains, of course: creating something and sharing it with the world is still an act of courage, especially with the “so… what do you think?” of a comment field or a Like button. There are still many out there who delight in running down things other people have created, and still plenty of opportunity for a first-time creator to experience shame and embarrassment for caring about what they’ve created. Easier and safer, then, to do that ourselves pre-emptively, to be the first to describe our content as trivial.

But we sell ourselves short, and lie to ourselves, when we dismiss what we’re creating and sharing as worthless – and shrug off our rights as creators as being just as unimportant. Which is why it’s deeply gratifying to see the protests that arise over terms-of-service changes: we’re starting to take our time and self-expression a little more seriously.

And just as important is the way that the platforms themselves are responding. While I was writing this post, Instagram published one of its own, featuring – among other points – an overdue explanation of the most contentious terms-of-service change, governing the use of photos in advertising and promising clearer language on that point.

Instagram’s owners clearly understand and respect that, clever and innovative as their technology may be, it’s the community and the content they create that gives Instagram most of its value. We should show our time and creativity at least as much respect as they do.