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Monday, December 31, 2012

Ryan Block: Why I\'m Quitting Instagram

The flap over Instagram's changing its terms of service has not died down even weeks after its announcement and subsequent partial reversal. People are still arguing whether Instagram's photographers will stay loyal to the service. Ryan Block, former editor in chief of AOL's Engadget and the co-founder of the popular tech community site gdgt.com, writes in a guest post for Bits about his reasons for quitting the Facebook-owned service.

This month, surely to the chagrin of family members and friends with whom I haven't spoken face to face for over a decade, I quit Facebook. I also suspended posting photos to Instagram, the photo sharing service that Facebook recently acquired for $715 million and where I have almost 9,000 followers. But probably not for the reasons you might think.

Facebook's legendarily fast and loose approach to user privacy has long been something of a cliché, which is why deleting one's account is now something of a hollow techno-poli tical statement â€" the Internet equivalent to moving off the grid to a cabin in the mountains. And it's certainly not as if Facebook has much to worry about, as no number of high-profile abandoners over the last two years have slowed the company's ballooning growth, now at over a billion active users.

So few Facebook users took part in Facebook's last site-governance voting, in which users were asked to approve or disapprove a number of workaday changes to its policy, that it resulted in the eventual shutdown of the site-governance balloting itself.

I also suspect that most Instagram users won't go to the mat over the company's proposed terms of service changes, which provided Facebook the ability to sell users' photos. (Instagram has since backpedaled on these changes, smartly.)

Despite any nefarious behavior, real or perceived, my decision to quit was actually far less sophisticated. In the case of Facebook, I've simply never been fond of the service and intended to remove my largely inactive account for years. In the case of Instagram, I've fallen out of love with highly filtered square photos of sunsets and (often delicious-looking) plates of food.

In my search for technology products and services that somehow enrich or add value to my life, Facebook and Instagram have been a net negative not only in their usefulness, but also in other, subtle ways most people don't often consider.

The longer users keep any of their accounts alive â€" even if dormant â€" on the dozens or hundreds of sites, services and apps registered with over the years, the greater the chances are of that data's being used in ways we may not approve. This isn't anything new, but as privacy policies shift and companies change hands, data we may think of as being rather personal c an become highly liquid.

A decade ago, I joined one of the early social networking sites, Friendster, which struggled to find a business model and eventually collapsed as users migrated to MySpace. In the intervening years, Friendster's brand, intellectual property (including some seminal social networking patents), and most important, user data from millions of people, were broken up or changed hands.

Now, eons later (in Internet time), Friendster lives on as an online gaming company aimed at Southeast Asian youth. I might have eventually discovered this fact by keeping up on technology news, but it turns out there was no need: one day last year, my inbox started to fill up with Friendster marketing messages for the first time in years, and I realized that my long-forgotten decade-old profile data had been sold, without my knowledge or permission, to a company I'd never heard of in Asia. And I could do nothing about it.

As technology companies work overtim e to make it easier to sign up and maintain accounts, little regard is given to the long-term ownership and use of our data. After all, it's far easier for each of us to simply forget and neglect all the random sites and services we've signed up for than to keep up with the innumerable changes to opaque terms of service and privacy policy documents, or monitor every merger and acquisition of every company that makes something we use. In fact, to do so would basically be a full-time job, and an excruciatingly tedious one at that.

There are other costs to letting accounts go dormant, too. The final time I loaded Facebook to click the delete button, I noticed weeks-old friend requests from my grandmother and one of my cousins. Since I long ago configured my Facebook profile to automatically ingest and posts my tweets, I'm sure it outwardly seemed as if I'm an active Facebook user. Which, of course, would make me a huge jerk for not responding to their friend requests.

I've also been on the other side of the same situation, having sent unrequited friend requests on other social networks like Path, never knowing whether I've been spurned, or whether the other party just doesn't use the service very often.

Perhaps worst of all, in an era where we meticulously prune our online personae, services like Facebook require constant diligence and maintenance. On Twitter accounts, About.me profiles, or LinkedIn bios, at the very least users are empowered by complete control in their outward appearance. This is in contrast to Facebook and any other social tool that allows any user in its social graph to associate you with all manner of unrelated career- (or even potentially life-) changing posts or images.

We'd all be much better off simplifying our technological footprints and consolidating our trust in the few services that provide us the greatest value with the fewest unintended side effects. In the end, I'm not afraid to admit it. I 'm a quitter.

And you should be, too. People wondering what there is to gain by thinning their online accounts sometimes ask: “Why quit?” Instead, I think every once in a while we should all ask ourselves: “Why stay?”