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Why I Left Instagram-Digital Privacy, Political Security & Marginalized Communities


Last April I wrote a blog about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram (Stupid Fat Hobbit, You Ruins it!). In the blog I discussed how I left Facebook in 2010, and how I joined Instagram shortly thereafter, and how I now wondered about being pulled back into the FB empire.

 I moved to Instagram shortly after leaving Facebook in September of 2010, and never went back.  Initially it was a personal choice, but as I learned more about FB and their privacy and ownership policies—it quickly became political too.  As a result, I have actively worked to stay out of the FB ecosystem, steering clear of apps and programs (Spotify for instance) when they require a FB account.

Raising questions about privacy, consumer profiling and commodification, the blog ultimately ended with me questioning “how long I’d stay with Instagram,” given its new owner’s preference for dominion.

Now we have the answer, on Monday I deleted my Instagram account.

I deleted my account following the early morning company release of its “updated terms of service.”  I didn’t close my account because of Instagram’s new service agreements—they were hardly novel.  However, I did close my account because the front page attention the announcement generated  gave me reason to pause—urging me to take a deeper look at my Instagram account and the ways it intersected with privacy, security, social media and community safety concerns.

Yesterday Instagram recanted.  Now it’s saying it doesn’t want to sell users photos or turn them into advertisements.  In fact, Kevin Systrom Chief Executive at Instagram said, “it is not our intention to sell your photos” “own their content and [that] Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.”  For some, this was enough reassurance to return to Instagram or delay account deletion. For others, it was too little too late.  For me, neither was an option–what I discovered demanded a different decision.

Despite the explanatory blog, it’s important to remember the service announcements from Instagram are hardly an anomaly. The truth is, most people don’t read the terms and conditions for online sites—they just click through on the way to the application they want.  If they did (and they should) they’d find that Instagram’s proposed changes are consistent with other corporate social media and online sites—i.e., Google, Apple, or Facebook.  Additionally, they’d be quickly reminded that generating a profit is always the goal of these sites, and that WE are the product that is being sold to advertisers.  This isn’t an ‘Instagram issue’, it’s the result of corporations setting the social media standards across their platforms of choice. Ugh.

But back to why I left Instagram.

I didn’t make copies of my photos before leaving—using services like Instaport.Me or Instabackup.  Nor did I export my favorites photos or order physical prints using services like Copygram.  I did however, take a careful look at the history of my account and the pictures it held, and this is what I found.

In the 2 years I had an account, I’d posted nearly 400 photos.  Most of the photos were innocuous—shots of buildings, traveling, food or architecture.  However, there were also dozens of photos of friends, family and community.  It’s here–among the photos of the people I most care about–that I realized the real privacy rights and standards that are needed across social media platforms.

A tweet, an update, a posted pic or ‘friending’ could be dangerous—even life threatening. 

Why do I say this?   Because amidst my 400 photos, I found the following:

  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Many photos of minors—mainly nieces and nephews
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>8 photos of individuals currently on parole
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>6 photos of community members with mixed immigration status
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>1 photo of a woman who has an active Order for Protection against her husband
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>1 photo of a woman who is living in Transitional Housing while pursuing a VAWA asylum case
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>4 photos of children who have CPS workers or Guardians Ad Litem involved in their families
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>2 photos of individuals who attend services at “surveilled” religious institutions

These people are not strangers–they’re my family, my friends and members of my community! Some are organizers or political activists, most are not.  Most are regular people who had their picture taken and posted as part of a virtual archive of happy times and important memories– snapshots of our everyday lives, specific moments in time.

And though I work on media and telcom issues from a justice-based perspective, I hadn’t thought of how many of these photos could just as easily trigger a happy memory as they could a visit from DHS, CPS, a PO or an abuser.  Frighteningly, in addition to being used to “remember and share special times” these pics could also be used to stalk, manipulate, misinform, subvert or intimidate.

Some will inevitably argue that “safety” is as simple as  1) not doing anything illegal, and 2) not documenting it.  Not only is this inaccurate and patronizing, it dismisses the widespread and entrenched state sponsored physical and economic violence which already exists in our communities.  This violence is documented—infant mortality rates, life expectancy, unemployment, incarceration, illiteracy, out of home placements, etc.–but it’s rarely challenged or labeled “illegal” because of its relationship to patriarchy, racism and colonization (among other oppressions).  Clearly there is more to the safety equation for many of us.

In my non social media life, I’m aware of these how these dynamics play out and it influences how I keep myself safe, how my friends and family move through life, and the ways in which our communities work to build safety collectively.  If I’m this deliberate offline, shouldn’t I exercise the same level of diligence online?  I decided I should, or at the very least I should pause long enough to think about/talk about this with others.

To gain this space, I left Instagram.  It might not be everyone’s choice, but it’s the one I made. In its absence I want to create more time to think about political security (shoutout to Nijmie for the term) online, and what it means to fight for digital privacy rights that protect more than ‘consumers’ and our unhealthy relationship to Corporate America.  Instead, I’m interested in a movement building action-plan that advances a vision for digital rights and standards which build stronger families and safer and more self-determined communities.

I’m curious to hear what kinds of political insecurity you unearth as you look through your Instagram photos.  If you discover any, does it raise new questions for you?  Hit me up via the comment section, I’d love to start a real dialogue about what our communities need–and let’s just say it’s more than a boycott of Instagram. 

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