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October 31, 2014
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Instagram Purchase Sets the Dangerously New to Old, Ordinary Purposes
Navneet Alang: "The reason for Instagram users' outrage is pretty clear: their favourite app is now part of the evil empire"

When it comes to generating outrage amongst web users, there really is no beating Facebook. They have, through numerous redesigns, privacy gaffes and sheer boneheaded-ness, become practiced experts at it. So it seemed fitting this week when, after acquiring popular photo-sharing network Instagram, Facebook continued doing what they’re best at: annoying the crap out of people by making smart business decisions.

The reason for Instagram users’ outrage is pretty clear: their favourite app is now part of the evil empire. If you want the definitive breakdown of their malaise, though, I suggest you read Paul Ford’s take over at NY Mag. (Spoiler: what Facebook bought wasn’t simply mobile savvy or users, but sincerity.)

But there’s still something interesting here beyond the way apps have become yet another way of claiming an identity through conspicuous consumption–or, in this case, conspicuous production. Because, just as you’d expect, thousands of people took to Facebook to either claim how upset they were Instagram had been acquired by Facebook, or to warn others that their photos would soon be the property of Facebook.

Nonetheless, about the most unhelpful (and boring) response would be to shout “hypocrisy!”. Taking to Facebook to complain about Facebook isn’t so much hypocritical as it is pragmatic. If you were deeply frustrated by a sense of betrayal, or simply wanted a less insidious place to complain, you could choose go on vent on somewhere like identi.ca, a Twitter-like site committed to privacy and open principles–and precisely no-one would hear you. We take to social networks to express ideas to others and be affirmed and engaged by them. If everyone is on Facebook, and all we really want is to yell “this sucks!” and have others agree, it hardly makes to do so on websites that have the feel deserted, post-apocalyptic shopping malls.

Yet that practicality also makes painfully clear the bind we’re in. Social networks hook us in when they have reached a critical mass amongst our peers. To pull out of them on principle is a bit like staying home from a party because the red plastic beer cups aren’t recyclable: you may be doing the right thing, but you sure feel like a tool sitting there in your living room alone. There is a social punishment for standing up for what you believe in, and this effect has been concentrated, not lessened, by the social internet.

But that kind of circularity works on the other end of the equation, too. In Instagram’s message to their users on their Tumblr (oh shush), they claimed that they “set out to change and improve the way the world communicates and shares”. Sure, every startup says that. But if you do want to do that, nearly a billion users and a billion bucks makes reaching all those people and “revolutionizing sharing” a heck of a lot easier. The same pull that makes leaving Facebook so hard makes saying no to their wads of cash pretty darn difficult, too.

Still, there is no grand lesson here–unless, I suppose, if you run a startup. Even then, “be really freaking lucky” is, as I understand it, not the most practical advice you can give budding entrepreneurs. At the same time, the Instagram acquisition is a sign of how ordinary occurrences–small things being swallowed by bigger ones; people defining themselves through what they can display; and that tiny issue of there being no escape from “the market”–can be accelerated and intensified by the internet, rather than changed or disrupted.

It is nonetheless still sad. When I heard the news, I was listening to that already-old song “Get Innocuous” by LCD Soundsystem. Some of the lyrics, barked over the looping beat, go like this: “When once you had believed it / Now you see it’s sucking you in / To string you along with the pretense / And pave the way for the coming release”. If my malaise at one Valley company buying another seemed a bit inappropriate, those words put into sharp relief. If just five years ago (five!) the newly social web felt like it was full of revolutionary possibility, it seems that like potential is now often put to very mundane ends. We pin pictures of stuff we want to buy to Pinterest. We post pictures of our meals to Instagram, soon to be replete with personalized ads. We tweet our displeasure to our similarly privileged, cynical friends. It’s not that there isn’t hope in these things–that the social web isn’t eminently human. It just gets unsettlingly ordinary, upsettingly fast, as if there are forces at work that very quickly put the dangerously new to old, ordinary purposes.

“You can normalize / Don’t it make you feel alive?” intones the robotic, repetitive refrain of “Get Innocuous”. Yeah. I guess it does. I’m just not sure “alive” is the only word I’m looking for. 

____

Navneet Alang is a tech critic at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @navalang.

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