Instagram has just turned on a so called “activity status” for (at least some) users. It allows accounts you follow and people you message with to see when you were last active in Instagram apps. The new setting has been activated by default, but without a notification informing the user about the new “feature”.
Some might consider this a typical and expected behavior for social media apps, and it is. The “activity status” functionality is well established in other messaging apps, and implementing changes to privacy-related aspects of a service via “opt-out” (activated by default, can be turned off) instead of “opt-in” (deactivated by default, can be turned on) has been a common practice ever since the early days of the social web.
But times are different now. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook (which owns Instagram), has just declared 2018 the year in which he wants to “fix Facebook”. He and his company have been unusually self-critical lately in regards to how the social network might have contributed to certain problematic (online) trends and how spending time on social media can can be bad for people. “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”, Zuckerberg wrote.
In short, Zuckerberg wants to regain people’s trust in that his company can be a net gain for society, not a net loss, and he’s vocal about it. But in the end, what matters are people’s actions, not what they say. Instagram taking itself the right to force a privacy intrusion onto its users without asking or at least informing suggests that not a lot will change. This practice is right from the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” playbook which Facebook and other consumer tech companies have been following religiously over the past 10 years to grow their user base and engagement. In other words, to capture as much of people’s attention and share of mind as possible, regardless of collateral damage.
But these practices must not be tolerated anymore. They represent the same unethical values and culture which caused Facebook to become a burden for societies. They show a lack of respect for the user and an obsession with relentlessly increasing user engagement, putting the users’ actual well-being not first, not second, but at the bottom of the list of priorities.
As someone who so far has considered Instagram a more pleasant and less destructive type of social app than Facebook or Twitter, I’m really disappointed. And if Zuckerberg wants his pledge to be seen as sincere, this definitely doesn’t help.
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