The more uproars over terms of service we see, the less any of them matter

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 18, 2012

From The News Desk

There was a time early in the Web 2.0 era when a flap over terms of service could strike legitimate fear in the hearts of founders. The whole user-generated content thing was new, and with it the idea that our thoughts, feelings, pictures, and friendships could be the commercial property of a website.

There was a sense that users owned these sites in a way that typical users did not in the Web 1.0 era. Without users, after all, what would YouTube play? Who would Digg anything? What would be on Flickr? We could all just walk, right?

Digg, for one, was renowned for caving to user revolts. Facebook on the other hand, perfected the art of pretending to hear users, but ultimately doing what it wanted anyway. Indeed, it was hard to know which was the better strategy back then, because it was all so new. Om Malik described one Digg revolt, as he watched it play out with "morbid fascination."

As someone who has been the subject of a mass social media mob before, I can attest that these things feel huge when you're in the middle of them. But the truth is they rarely amount to much of anything, and they pass. What's more: The more frequently they occur, the more everyone realizes that no one will really be forced to change anything.

Take the blogger and alpha user uproar a few weeks ago that Instagram was pulling its features from Twitter. Plenty of digital ink was spilled on how anti-user it was. I was practically alone in saying that the bulk of users wouldn't actually care. Those who primarily use Twitter would keep using Twitter and use its photo filters. Those who primarily use Instagram or Facebook's social networks for sharing would continue to use those. Neither side would particularly care about the inconvenience.

Sure enough, according to some numbers reported on TechCrunch yesterday, the whole to-do hasn't effected the traffic of either site.

Yesterday's uproar over Instagram's change in Terms of Service has once again incited an angry mob around the photosharing site. What's really freaking people out is a section that says your images and name could be used in an advertisement without compensation, much as Facebook already does. And the only way to opt out is to close your account.

Sure, this is bigger than the anti-user uproar over photos getting pulled from Twitter, but it's no bigger than other uproars Facebook has seen over changes in Terms of Service. It's nothing compared to the revolt over the introduction of the Newsfeed back when Facebook was a much more fledgling company, that could have well been still crushed by a scandal.

Organize as many boycotts as you want, post as many passive-aggressive Instagram photos on Facebook as you want, comment on as many blog posts as you want. Quit your account and go to the new Flickr. Facebook/Instagram, and every other Web 2.0 company, won't climb down one iota, because each user revolt has proven they don't have to. It doesn't matter how loud or frequent they are. In fact, the louder and more frequent they get, the harder it is to actually galvanize people to leave a service -- which is the only thing that could actually spark change. "What are we mad about this time?"

Remember the great alternative open source social network Diaspora? Despite hundreds of thousands in donations and favorable mainstream press at the time, enthusiasm petered out, and it was handed back to the users earlier this year.

As Erin Griffith pointed out in her excellent post on Amazon's ad ambitions yesterday, there can be very real repercussions in terms of customer trust that build up over time with each uproar. That may have real implications when it comes to what users opt into. Facebook may have won each of its battles, but it's known as sleazy and sneaky and has to walk a very fine line whenever it comes to anything related to privacy.

But I'd argue even that is limited. We live in a bubble of people who read and parse and obsess over what these sites are doing. Most social media users simply do not.

As everyone has realized that these uproars amount to nothing, it's become trendy to lament the loss of mob influence. Whether it's the uproar that surrounded the launch of or dramatic posts like these, there's a rash of "What happened to our Web 2.0 paradise?" going around.

It reminds me of the transition when real celebrities started to eclipse nerd celebrities on Twitter. Suddenly Robert Scoble's hard fought 300,000 followers didn't look so impressive next to Ashton Kutcher yawning, rolling out of bed, and getting 13 million followers. The balance of power and what Twitter was all about inexorably shifted. And guess what? The company welcomed it, because it represented mainstream growth. Whether bloggers want to face it or not, mainstream growth is the Holy Grail each of these services has always worked for since the earliest Web 2.0 days. What happened to "our" Web 2.0? Simple: It achieved its goals.

The truth is it wasn't ever "our" Web 2.0, as bloggers and early adopters. It was always something owned by entrepreneurs and VCs and meant to belong to the world. If it didn't get that big, these companies wouldn't have survived. And the vast, vast majority of users care about the free, serendipitous utility of sharing photos, connecting with friends, watching silly videos, and all the other bigger promises that Web 2.0 has actually upheld and made mainstream.

[Image courtesy Thomas Hawk]