How New Instagram Changes Your Journalism

Photo courtesy Flickr User Kaptain Kobold

Instagram has become an unlikely, yet important, online tool for journalists, bloggers and citizens. Not only is it a great way to shoot stylized photos and on-the-go location shots, but it’s also a smart outlet to turn to when looking for eyewitness accounts of major news — people often turn to Instagram thanks to its quick sharing with social media networks like Twitter and Facebook.

However, these past few weeks have changed the service in a radical way, and now is the time to determine whether it’s the right tool for your photos and your personal use.

1. You Won’t See it On Twitter

This season has been a rocky one for Instagram and one of its biggest propagators, Twitter. Two weeks ago, the companies had effectively “broken up,” with Instagram no longer hosting images through Twitter’s API. Twitter snapped back, effectively distributing its own Instagram clone (with filters to boot) right in its native TwitPic system.

It all sounds like a bunch of schoolyard taunting and sour grapes from Facebook acquiring Instagram earlier this year, but the end result is that inevitably the user loses. For journalists, this means that searching through Twitter directly or through a service such as Storify will ultimately come up with less relevant photos or information. Instagram has assured that the company’s photos would remain present on the site — but in actuality an Instagram post to Twitter results in a simple URL without an image preview.

The result is a barrier to accessing photos from Instagram in an easy way that keeps it all in context. To add insult to injury, Instagram doesn’t even host its own web-based search system — you have to go through Google or a service like Stati.gram to gather photos. These barriers severely limit Instagram’s usability to gather breaking news or eyewitness accounts, and create a frustrating and problematic system that outweighs Instagram’s benefits.

2. Instagram Will Use Your Photos for Ads

If the severe limitations on photo gathering were not enough, yesterday Instagram released a new Terms of Use, effective January 16th of next year, that drastically affects users and their photos. While Instagram has always allowed users to “own” their photos, its previous Terms of Use indicated that the company could use the data on the photos for different purposes. New documentation shows an expansion of those privileges to finally include advertising, which means that Instagram can now use any photo as an ad for any reason, and it also reserves the right to show these photo-ads without clearly marking them.

These new powers are debilitating at best and downright privacy-invading at worst, but it has a lot of extra repercussions for journalists who use their photos to report stories or promote a personal brand — especially those with many followers. For example, taking a quick snapshot of the local McDonald’s sign for a story on the company staying open through Christmas may seem like an easy way to grab a visual, but later on down the road, Instagram has the right to offer your photo without prior consent to McDonald’s for a “sponsored story” to promote to mutual friends.

It’s never intended for reporting materials to be used for branding or advertising, but Instagram’s new rules make it difficult to control if and when it happens. In a lot of ways, it makes the service entirely unusable both personally and professionally. Users are already calling it a “suicide note,” and the only way to get out of the new rules is to get out of the app entirely.

3. There’s Better Out There

In short: Instagram’s usefulness and abilities as a tool for journalists and publishers is no longer, but there are still other platforms that are available for photo posting and news gathering. Speaking of unlikely, many users are now returning to Flickr to post and share photos, many with handy Creative Commons licenses that help with citizen journalism and breaking news. If you haven’t already, download the company’s app — just don’t start looking for the filters.

Photo courtesy Flickr User Kaptain Kobold