By Kim Howell
“Conclusion: Occupy Facebook!” A recent analysis of Occupy Wall Street web analytics found that because Facebook users are an engaged community, those who come to www.occupywallst.org from Facebook spend more time on the website and interact with it more. Furthermore, photos of peaceful protests are far more likely to go viral than videos. People will watch a video of police pepper-spraying protesters, but they’re much more likely to share a photo of a stunt with a bed in the middle of Madison Avenue.
So what does this have to do with Instagram? Everything.
“Facebook isn’t buying an app; they are buying us. They are buying a community” says CNN’s Dirk Dallas. Instagram’s membership numbers are impressive, but Facebook isn’t buying quantity—it’s buying quality. Facebook’s users are, by most meaningful metrics, far more engaged than Twitter’s, but Instagram members leave them in the dust. Relative to Instagram, “Facebook has a massive user base, what it lacks are the passionate communities,” according to analyses.
The privacy implications are alarming. Instagram was a comfortable community; it felt like a cozy ‘nook’ where members could interact and share freely. It wasn’t private, certainly, but it felt that way. “The service’s seeming remoteness…lent it a sense of privacy and intimacy, separate from the rest of our online lives,” says a blogger for the New York Times. Instagram users have always been more comfortable sharing potentially hazardous information, including their location.
And then Facebook bought it: “I picture the consumer happily paddling down a data rivulet only to find themselves suddenly on the open waters of the social sea,” says researcher Ryan Calo. Users could jump ship—there are plenty of alternatives for photos, and even one for video. But will they? One estimate suggests that the number who leave might be “roughly equivalent to the same amount of people who claim they’re quitting Facebook after each design change or privacy outrage from a government representative. That is, hardly any.”
So what this adds up to is a bonanza for internet marketers, and perhaps a perfect storm for digital privacy: a dedicated group of people, united around photos, the most commonly shared visual medium, who feel comfortable sharing their locations and images of their lives. And this data is suddenly open to a company with a mixed privacy history. Analyses find that the sites have currently have similar privacy policies, with Facebook’s being slightly more fast and loose.
Perhaps none of this would matter if the data weren’t so valuable, but estimates say marketing firms will pay up to $5,000 for a single user’s personal data. Clearly, the incentives are there—do we just have to hope that the intentions remain pure?
Kim Howell, intern in WITNESS’ communication department, is a human rights activist with a background in West African affairs, women’s empowerment, and international development. You can get more updates via her Twitter feed: @itskimplicated.