The question, inevitably, whenever someone sells out is how money and fame and fortune is going to change them, whether it’s a band or an artist or a social network. And every social network that makes it starts its life as a darling of sorts. That feeling rarely lasts, though Instagram has managed to make it last a little bit longer than most; it fostered an emotional attachment in part because what it created was inherently emotional. It was sincere. Whatever vestiges of indie darlingness it had left are being quickly stripped away, however, as it puts on more and more of the garb of a Facebook subsidiary.
It started, maybe, when Instagram tinkered with its Terms of Service, but that change is largely invisible — the outrage wasn’t, but looking at or using Instagram, you wouldn’t notice that anything’s different. And there’s that thing where it intentionally broke itself on Twitter, so you have to go to Instagram (or Facebook!) to see Instagram photos. But they haven’t made Instagram itself work or feel more like Facebook. Two new changes do.
Instagram is now starting to send at least some users an email when they’re tagged in a photo, just like Facebook does. A useful notification for some, perhaps, but it’s odd to get an email from Instagram — the mobile-only social network was almost fastidious in the ways it didn’t bother you, particularly through email. (Seriously, when was the last time you got an email from Instagram?) The point of emails like this is to increase engagement — it’s why Facebook and Twitter blast you with emails now, if you let them. Facebook-owned Instagram’s no longer too cool to nudge you to check out Instagram to see what people are saying about you.
Also, over the last week, Instagram has joined Facebook in requesting government-issued IDs from some users after locking their accounts, and in some cases, even more extensive documentation. While the practice makes some sense to reopen a Facebook account because it requires that you use your real name, as Talking Points Memo notes, Instagram usernames are (very) often pseudonyms that are in no way related to a user’s real name. Instagram’s new terms of service allows it to “reserve the right to refuse access to the Service to anyone for any reason at any time.”
The answer to the sellout question, whether it’s a musician or an author or a social network, is almost always the same: It does change. It appeals to the aggregate tastes of the masses it’s being marketed toward, since it has to justify all the money that was pressed into its hands. It becomes less precious and more streamlined; less emotional and more efficient. There’s a reason we don’t often look forward to the moment things “sell out.” But Instagram’s fate is better than most, particularly if you look at other beloved tech companies that’ve been acquired by juggernauts: Google regularly chews through startups it acquires, like Foursquare’s predecessor, Dodgeball; Flickr was ruined by Yahoo; Lala vanished without a trace inside of Apple; and Microsoft turned the company behind the Sidekick into the wildly disastrous Kin project.
Instagram isn’t as charming as it used to be, and it’s perhaps galling that it’s become a mainstream service that functions better in some ways at the expense of the character that defined it. But it could be worse. And the other possibility, that it stayed independent and it blew up into something monstrous on its own, only leads to a point one day where it’d have been on the other side of the table, and we’d be pointing our fingers at it for ruining some other indie darling. Instagram could’ve been buyer; it chose to be a seller.