Instagram, Community and the Monetization of People

With the recent uproar over Instagram’s proposed terms of service changes, I think it’s time to talk about what social media is and isn’t. Perhaps it’s also time to talk about changing social media’s status from golden calf to useful tool.

As a lover of Instagram, I was unhappy with the proposed changes (at least how they were first written). However, this is not because I expected the service to always remain free and unadulterated by advertising. I enjoy nothing about advertising. Still, I understand social media services are businesses, and as such, are in the business of making money. Instead, I was upset that “users” (the widgets formerly known as “customers” or even “humans”) were being treated as the product. In fact, the entire “Instagram community” becomes a product to be sold. Our digital presences are becoming little more than chattel.

Arguably, this is a paradigm many social media services function from; that is, the customer as both product and consumer. I believe this is a large problem with how social media services are monetized and how customers react to that monetization.

Social networks and their customers need to stop conceptualizing social media services as communities. Facebook is not a community, and neither are Twitter and Instagram. Rather, the communities are the groups of people that use these services to gather, share or discuss.

left-hand / Foter / CC BY-ND

Think of a small-town pub. In the evening, people gather there to talk to one another, sing karaoke and drink. Devoid of people, the pub is just a building. Full of neighbors, it is a community (or a part of it). Amazingly, people pay to be there, buying drinks and food and tipping their servers.

The web is no different. Facebook doesn’t get to be a community just because it calls itself one. It is actually many communities, comprised of real people of infinite complexity who exist in relationships that shift and change.

I think this is why some social media advertising schemes might rub people the wrong way. If the aforementioned pub used fine print to retain the rights to photos you snapped while within their walls, you might be a bit uncomfortable. If they copied the photos and then used them in ads that would pop up in the middle of the table while you were chatting with your friends, you’d probably stop going there. However, you gladly comply with the expectation that you spend money while you’re socializing. In fact, you may even put quarters in the pool table while you’re there.

This is where social media services have it wrong. I will pay for the privilege of being there, and I’ll bet many other people will, too. We will spend a little more to get a little more (like a pool game). We, the customers, just don’t want you to make money off of us in ways that feel icky, like using our photos to create “customized ads.”

This “ick factor” is related to those early, misguided attempts by some brands to enter the social media sphere. This is something with which all public relations pros are quite familiar. Uninitiated brands treat Twitter and Facebook like free advertising space instead of a town square. People don’t want to encounter ads next to pictures of cousin Sally’s new puppy.

As PR pros, we are quite comfortable illuminating for our client the distinction between an acceptable and unacceptable social media post. This should also be true when it comes to discussions of social media monetization. It is not enough to say “it’s a business” and call detractors naive. Success is not predicated on disrespecting your customers. In fact, many argue success has more to do with understanding your audience.

Some social media services and users get it. For example, Twitter successfully employs advertising, with appropriate and unobtrusive sponsored tweets. I find Google search ads acceptable for the same reasons, and I don’t think they’re exactly struggling for cash.

I think we all need to accept ads as a part of our social networking experience. However, there are other models that work for services where ads can be a distraction. Flickr, which has somehow come through this Instagram debacle as a bit of an underdog champion, seems to have understood this for a while. They charge a reasonable fee for enhanced accounts that give professionals more tools and services. New social network App.net also gets it. They are ad-free and instead charge a monthly membership fee.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that fee or subscription-based social media would require a shift in thinking for most consumers. But I think part of the reason we don’t want to pay for social media services is because we think of them as the communities themselves, not a forum for communities. From that perspective, charging for the privilege of using the service seems cynical.

However, we must remember neither Facebook nor Instagram nor Twitter owns our communities. From that perspective, paying for the service seems to be the most direct, least cynical-seeming approach to monetizing social media. Monetize the service, not the people. Social networks aren’t communities; communities are made of people. Social networks are tools, and people have been paying for great tools since the beginning of recorded history. Social media services should be the products bought and sold, not the people who use them.

What does community on social media mean to you? What would you be willing to pay to use Instagram or Facebook, or do you prefer ads? Tell me in the comments.

Photo credit: left-hand / Foter / CC BY-ND

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2 thoughts on “Instagram, Community and the Monetization of People

  1. Pingback: The 2013 Communications Intern | Hits and Misses

  2. Pingback: You’re the One that I Want | Hits and Misses

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