User Privacy – What Foursquare Learned From Instagram’s Kerfuffle

Instagram drew wide criticism when it released an updated terms of service late last month. Many users of the platform interpreted the new language to mean that Instagram would sell user photos to advertisers without compensation. The accuracy of this concern notwithstanding, the two-day furor led Instagram to withdraw the updates and reinstate the previous version of its terms of service.

Then, less than two weeks later, Foursquare sent out an update to its own privacy policy. [Click here to listen to crickets chirping]

Why such vastly different public reactions? The set up sounds about the same. Popular social platforms updating portions of their service that rarely draw more than cursory attention. And terms of service and privacy policies might be separate entities on paper, but to the average user they’re practically synonymous.

The social media pundits, such as they are, have already weighed in on the intricacies of Instagram’s missteps, but what it seems to break down to is that the platform allowed the story of its updates to be told by others.

Instagram’s new terms are not terribly far removed from those of other platforms, but taken from the perspective of the user that was not immediately apparent. The opacity of the legalese, combined with an already-existing fear that Instagram’s purchase by Facebook would draw it to the dark side, created an audience primed to take things well out of context. Furthermore, Instagram was updating these terms preemptively for services that aren’t yet public, so it was impossible for users to judge for themselves the “privacy versus value” exchange that takes place with other social updates of this kind.

It’s difficult to imagine that the smart folks at Foursquare weren’t paying attention to the heat of the water that the smart folks at Instagram had set to boil for themselves. And indeed, Foursquare’s team handled their privacy policy update very differently, and successfully. Users were alerted in an email, a medium by which they are accustomed to reading and absorbing longer pieces of prose (as opposed to the “glance and react” nature of mobile devices upon which Instagram broadcast its updates). The email laid out reasons for the updates, how they will improve Foursquare’s service, and links with simple steps to bypass the updates if the user desired. Perhaps better still, Instagram’s update arrived when pre-holiday anxiety was reaching its most feverish while Foursquare caught users amidst the ham-induced naps between Christmas and New Year’s.

The two things we’re taking away from these vastly different outcomes are:

  • Clear communications are important – Instagram just didn’t give their user base the opportunity to engage with the terms of service updates in a reasonable way.
  • User-perceived privacy is what matters – It could be argued that Foursquare’s updates are actually more invasive than Instagram’s. Foursquare announced it will share users’ full names with businesses, while Instagram seems to be aiming only to serve up friend-based ads. Certainly it can be a subjective call about which is more invasive, but users have clearly demonstrated strong antipathy toward being linked to “advertisers.”

For brands, we see this as a clear signal to be cautious about balancing between “personal” or “customized” marketing as opposed to “invasive.” In our 2013 Digital & Social Marketing Outlook, one of the forecasts we mention to watch is how platforms begin to dig for more user data. Instagram’s experience will certainly shape how this process unfolds in the coming year.