Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. All of them wonderful ways to bring together people you know, care about, or just want to stalk. But it's easy to confuse connecting friends with friendship. Don't. All social media companies want is to make money off of you. And they'll never stop trying to.
When Instagram changed its terms of service last week, it brought a shitstorm down on itself that clearly took it by surprise. Rightly so. The response from users wasn't just annoyance, it was a deep sense of betrayal. How dare Instagram do this, was the refrain. I thought we had something. Today, there's even a class-action lawsuit.
Never mind that most Instagram users aren't well-versed enough in legalese to fully comprehend exactly why they were mad, or that the vast majority of them had agreed long ago to comparable terms of service when they signed up for Facebook. Never mind also that Instagram is a free service, with no means of sustaining itself other than through advertising. Or that almost all of its features are easily replaceable, should you choose to leave.
It's not just Instagram, obviously; every time Facebook — its new corporate papa — tweaks its privacy rules, its users go into a frenzy. But without its users giving up a certain amount of privacy, Facebook would be unable to attract advertisers. Without advertisers, Facebook has no revenue. Without revenue, there is no Facebook.
And despite maybe not engendering the emotional connections that Facebook and Instagram do, Twitter managed to gin up rancour this year as well. Every time it tries to force people to use, well, Twitter, it's cast as an agent of evil. But restricting your API and funnelling people into your service — the service you built — isn't remotely wrong or bad. It's acting with self-interest, sure. But that's what companies do. Otherwise, they would be charities.
The root of the problem is that what social media companies need more than anything is users. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. So when you first join, it's a wide open wonderland of zero consequence. The first hit, as they say, is free. But after a while, money needs to be made. And selling advertising to you — even turning you into advertising — is the most effective way to make it.
This doesn't make companies bad or evil. It makes them profitable. It also doesn't mean that Twitter or Facebook or Instagram are out to screw you; if they were, they'd lose too many users. But they'll continue to push the envelope until they hit that perfect equilibrium between making money and making you happy. They'll get away with as much as they can. As they should.
We've been through this before, and recently; humanity came to the slow and painful realisation just last year that not everything on the internet is free. Magazines and newspapers erected paywalls. Streaming releases hit time delays. There was outrage. It subsided. The end.
The same thing will happen here. It might take longer, because we're more attached to our photo filters than we ever were to YouTube. But eventually we'll get it, just in time to be righteously angry about the next Big Internet Ado.