First, let me state for the record: There will always be a special place in my heart for xkcd. Randall Munroe‘s webcomic has been a reliable source of amusement and enlightenment since it began in 2005. That former NASA robot programmer and his stick-figure ‘toons have choked me up, made my jaw drop, and soothed my fears with science.
But sometimes, just sometimes, Munroe gets things profoundly wrong.
That’s the case with his latest strip, an analogy that’s supposed to take Instagram’s side — a side even Instagram itself isn’t taking any more — in its terms-of-service kerfuffle. And before you say “dude, it’s just a webcomic,” consider that this particular webcomic is being splashed across Twitter by some of the service’s finest minds.
It is being used as a standard bearer for an argument I’ve seen with disturbing regularity this week — namely that Instagram users who freaked out about the privacy change are idiots who don’t understand the harsh realities of the for-profit business world.
This is patent nonsense, as Kevin Systrom’s own apology makes clear. But let’s take the time to deconstruct the argument represented here, and in the process explain something important about startups and trust in the social media age.
Here’s the analogy: guy has stored his stuff in his friend Chad’s garage for free. Chad informs guy that he will sell said stuff on Craigslist in a month’s time. Guy is outraged, and his impotent response is to threaten to not store any more stuff in Chad’s garage.
Get it? The guy is you, silly Instagram user, thinking you’d get something for nothing. The Craigslist note is the new (now abandoned) Instagram terms of service, which gave the company the right to sell your images to advertisers. The impotent threat is you loudly proclaiming on social media that you might not use Instagram any more. Bet you feel dumb now, National Geographic magazine!
There’s so much wrong packed into this analogy, it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s try the fact that a friend’s garage (very limited storage) and the cloud (virtually limitless storage) are totally different things. This category confusion reminds me of those outmoded RIAA and MPAA ads, the ones that equated digital piracy with burglary. You can (and should) argue that artists must be compensated for their work. But you can’t argue that a digital copy is in the same sphere of reality as a physical CD.
So let’s say that Chad opens an online service, Chadsgarage.com, and lets you store your digital stuff there for free. He’s still incurring server costs, of course, and he wants to turn a profit. So he sends you a note that he’s going to sell your stuff in a month.
Except that’s not what Instagram did, is it? Let’s improve the analogy. One day you get a ten-page document from Chadsgarage.com, outlining the new terms under which Chad will store your stuff. Buried deep in those pages is a paragraph that gives Chad the right to make copies of your stuff and give them to local advertisers, so that you might one day see your sentimental purchases splashed across billboards as you’re driving to work.
You understand and sympathize with the fact that Chad needs to make money (especially since he sold his garage to another guy, Mark). You just wish he’d come to you first and asked how he can do that in a way that doesn’t royally piss you off. After all, Chad’s supposed to be a friendly guy, and it’s supposed to be fun to store and share your stuff in his garage. That’s how he got an astonishing 100 million people to do so.
Luckily, tools exist to get your stuff off Chadsgarage.com in a matter of minutes, so your rage is anything but impotent. Meanwhile your other friend Marissa just reopened a garage site you used to use years ago, and it’s looking mighty spiffy now. She also promises that you will always own your stuff, and she’ll never make copies of it to sell to advertisers.
A lot of people start leaving Chadsgarage.com, or just putting their accounts on hold. Chad sends you a note telling you he’s been misunderstood. Of course he wasn’t going to sell copies of your stuff to advertisers! You just didn’t know how to read his legal document properly, and it’s probably his fault for not making the language simple enough. You thought it was plenty clear to begin with.
Another day passes, and Chad reissues his old terms of service, now with a full and proper apology. He says it was his fault. He should have figured out how he was going to make money first, then have a proper conversation with you, his customer. You read between the lines: He doesn’t want to lose you to Marissa’s garage. Score one for the invisible hand of the marketplace.
You’re relieved and thankful that you don’t have to put your friendship with Chad on ice, because you actually really like the guy and his service. Heck, maybe you’d even pay a small monthly fee to store your stuff on his site, if only he’d propose that. Maybe people who don’t pay only get to put one new thing in Chadsgarage.com every day? Something like that might work.
Granted, that analogy doesn’t fit in four panels of stick-figure drawings — but it is several light-years closer to the truth of what happened this week.
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