December 18, 2012

(KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES) Hey, if you can sell anything with those eight selfies I took with slightly different angles and filters, you deserve it.

Look, Instagram. You are welcome to your new terms of service. You are welcome to share our pictures and activity and updates with advertisers. You are welcome to potentially even share our pictures as advertisements, possibly even as advertisements that you do not label as such, without our express permission.

If you want to. But, really?

Have you seen these pictures?

I assume you have. You’re Instagram, custodian of weirdly filtered images of people’s avocadoes and friendships.

But I am not sure exactly how you plan to transform these into advertising gold. What will you sell with my weird pictures of the interior of the Guy Fieri Restaurant Bathroom? What will you sell with those six selfies Jen took at various angles and then posted to see if we thought her face were symmetrical?

But, hey, you know better than I do.

I understand that some people live perfect, photogenic lives. Their hair looks good. Their dogs sit decorously on their laps. They are wearing coordinated jackets and scarves at all times. Even their recently-baked pies look good for the camera. Their instagram photos are well-composed and beautifully lit.

And we cannot stand them.

If I see a promoted story that Kevin is enjoying what appear to be sepia-filtered noodles at that Hip New Noodle Place From The Groupon, I will cross that Hip Noodle Place off my list. Kevin is the annoying guy who puts a sepia filter on pictures of noodles, for crying out loud. I want to avoid him at all costs.

All this new policy is doing is alerting us to the places to avoid. Mark is There, using This? Kara has just bought a That? Well, good to know. Forewarned is forearmed.

There are ways out of this. Leave Instagram before January 16, when the new policy takes effect. Stay on Instagram, but leave only pictures that are totally unusable in ads.

But will we? As I’ve noted before, the biggest lie of modern life is “I have read the service agreement.” No one has ever read the service agreement. If you were to show up on my doorstep a decade from now demanding my firstborn child, claiming that this condition was a line in the iTunes agreement that I hastily marked “read,” I could not argue with you. “Here,” I would say, bundling the toddler into your arms. “Bedtime is at six.”

We only notice when it changes. “Did you see Instagram now wants your second-born child?” we gasp.

“It took your first-born already,” someone mutters.

“We knew that,” we say, fidgeting.

Besides, Instagram is a part of Facebook now, that vast country we complain about but never leave. Why should this particular county be any different?

There’s a larger question here, though, about the privacy we feel entitled to in our quasi-public interactions. Photos that used to be shared between friends — in albums, in polaroids, in emails — are now posted online. Does that make them stock photos? After all, they’re in public, for all — theoretically — to see.

But just because all can theoretically see what we post doesn’t mean we expect them to. Look at all the people who get shamed for racism on Twitter. Most of our lives are conducted in the online equivalent of a crowded, noisy cafeteria — we talk and share images and carry on as though no one is listening but the people we want to hear, but at any moment the rest of the cafeteria could go silent and all eyes could be on us. Mostly, we are content to live with that Sword of Damocles hanging over us by a thread. It comes with the decor, and the food’s great. But we always expect that it won’t fall, and we’re always startled that it does — or when someone points out that it can, or when a new policy weakens that thread. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.