Paying For the Free Lunch

I’ll be the first to admit that Mary Jones’ economics class was not the highlight of my high school career. I did manage, though, to take a few valuable lessons away from that course and one of them came back to me during the recent Instagram controversy.

In case you’re one of the five people that missed it, the Facebook-owned photo sharing site issued a new terms of service (t.o.s.) agreement. Some people interpreted a portion of the agreement, scheduled to go into effect in mid-January, as Instragram having the right to sell users’ photos. The allegedly offending section that caused all Hell to break loose online read:

“Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.”

Instagram quickly responded (or backtracked, according to some), basically saying, “Um, yeah…that’s not really what we meant.

Whether or not massive profits were behind their evil scheme to market photos of somebody’s cat or the 267 self-portraits you’ve taken, it does bring to the forefront a fact that all social media users need to accept (here comes the big economics lesson):

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Let’s face it: All of the social media sites that we use on daily basis aren’t altruistic endeavors; they’re businesses that have to make money to survive. If they survive, we can keep posting our inane stuff and everybody is happy.

Like any good business, they’re always finding (yes, sometimes annoying) ways to be profitable. Twitter has “Promoted Tweets”, while Facebook offers anyone (read: advertisers) the opportunity to place ads, promote posts and is now testing an option that will allow people to send messages to users they don’t know for a dollar a pop.

For the record, I don’t like or agree with efforts like the Instagram t.o.s. For years, photographers, graphic designers and writers have been dealing with contracts that assume all rights to their work (called “right grabbing” clauses) that make the text above look like child’s play. It’s one of the main reasons, along with laughable compensation rates, that many professionals (myself included) have all but given up pursuing freelance work.

As much as I like and use social media, there’s nothing out there that I would pay cash for. I think it’s safe to assume most everyone else would agree, as shown by the uproar created by Instagram’s t.o.s. issue. The problem is that “free” comes with a price and in the end, that price will be social media platforms taking our content and using it however they see fit. Next time, though, they might not back down like Instagram did when users cry “foul.”

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