Breaking News: There Is No Santa Claus

     |    Wednesday December 26th, 2012

These things flare up like sunspots and then disappear again, and along the way, issues get raised, but often the ones in the spotlight aren’t the right ones. To be more specific, last week’s news about Instagram.


Now, I’m not completely sure what Instagram is, except that it’s a social photo-sharing service that Facebook bought earlier this year for a ton of money. There seem to have been a bunch of these services over the years, all of which you have to sign up for. There was one a number of years ago that, I think, was owned by Kodak. Someone I knew sort of peripherally joined it and I got an e-mail asking me if I’d like to see her pictures, so I clicked and then I had to sign up and then my life became a maelstrom of spam from them trying to sell me all kinds of photo-related stuff. I forget how I got rid of it. Maybe it just went out of business.


Then there was Flickr. I had just bought a digital camera, and I found out I could put some of the photos up so that my friends could find them. I ran into the storage wall at exactly the same time as a friend bought me a “pro” account and I lost interest in taking pictures, as I do periodically. Kind of a perfect storm of photo-sharing, that, but I could see how it was useful. My old friend David Fox, who now lives in semi-rural Ohio, has always been a talented photographer, and every now and again, I’d go to his Flickr account and see what he was up to. Sometimes it was pictures of his kids. Sometimes it was pictures of circles, which David could find in some of the oddest places. Mostly, they were very good, and it was a pleasure to browse through them. As for my photos, it was more fun for me to post the good ones on my blog where, if I felt like it, I could give them context with words. But then, I’m a words guy.


But as time went on, “sharing” became very, very important. I’m not sure why this is, exactly, but suddenly, I was being asked if I wanted to “share” everything from my photos to my Angry Birds scores with persons unknown. And my answer was, inevitably, “no, thanks.” Because really, whose business is it? If I want you to see something, I’ll make sure you know where it is. But photo-sharing went on and on: Photobucket, Fotothing, Picasa, and, one day, Instagram. Apparently Instagram was ahead of the pack by being native to portable devices, and it became the app of choice for those people who use their phones to take pictures of their food in restaurants because they could shoot, push a button, and publish it right away.


There you go, although that was several weeks ago, and, in the great tradition of my photography generally, it’s out of focus, but it was a pretty good fish soup I had over in Lattes one rainy evening.


Instagram also had synergy with Facebook, which I guess meant that besides publishing your picture on the Instagram site, you could hit Facebook with it so that people would know that this particular fish soup was at Les Terrasses du Port in Lattes and, presumably, any of your Facebook friends who were around there right at that instant could drop in on you. The exact utility of this escapes me, but hey, I’m old.


Now, how much did this cost? Same as Facebook: it was free. How was Instagram making money on this? Well, glad you asked: they weren’t. Facebook had at least started running ads and charging for some commercial pages, which of course had people wanting to storm its headquarters with torches and pitchforks. It didn’t bother me: back in the old days, when I’d write for a magazine that was thick with ads, my friends would get annoyed: “How can you find the articles with all those ads?” Well, easily enough, plus with “all those ads” I knew that there was a healthy cash-flow, and I’d get paid on time and well, and I (usually) did. If Facebook was making money off of these things, and that kept it rolling, well, fine with me. (And as we all know now, it’s not making all that much off of it and there seems to be not a little smoke and mirrors involved in all of this).


Facebook, of course, did its IPO and got squillions for it. It then turned around and spent some of the squillions on Instagram, even though it was a free service without advertising or any other visible means to make money. It should be noted, though, that it wasn’t the biggest photo-sharing service out there. Facebook itself was. So doubtless there was some verbiage about how the two services would complement each other and so on. But once the Facebook stock had come to rest at far less than it had sold for earlier, it was time for the new kid to start earning its keep.


And thus it was that Instagram announced that it was going to be taking your pictures, which they were hosting for free, and maybe use them in ads with no compensation to the photographer and no notice that they were being used. Were I an Instagram user, I might find my fish soup adorning an ad for Les Terrasses du Port on Facebook! Quelle horreur! And someone (the restaurant, presumably) would pay Instagram for the photo and I wouldn’t see a nickel. Those of us with long memories remember that Facebook either did or didn’t try something like this in the past (rumors sweeping around Facebook being what they are) and there was an identical uproar. Eventually, Instagram issued a couple of statements, which sort of boiled down to saying they really had no intention of doing this yet, and they’d tell everyone when and if they decided to do it. (All of this was well-reported at the wonderful Sorrywatch site, your one-stop shopping site for contrition of all sorts, including faux, most notably in this post and then this post).


But the whole brouhaha does raise the eternal question: with all of this free stuff, how does anyone make money? I know, most people would rather that everything be free forever, but, like I said above, there’s no Santa Claus, as I suspect some of you found out yesterday. How many gazillion dollars has YouTube lost so far? What keeps Wikileaks and Anonymous going? Have you ever benefited from any of these services, incuding Instagram and Facebook? What about Google Plus? Seriously: if you use this stuff, what’s your financial input been? (I gave Google ten bucks the other week to increase my storage because the photos I post on my blog are so big). I’m not even defending Instagram here, just trying to understand a universe where content creators don’t get paid, content servers don’t get paid, but somehow some people get rich.


It makes my head hurt, but I figure if I don’t play, I won’t get hurt when it all comes tumbling down. But meanwhile, in the spirit of sharing, here’s this very blog being written on a cold, grey Christmas.