The great alarm over Instagram's apparent move to appropriate and sell every user's photos turns out to have been misplaced. The company released a statement specifying that it had no plans to sell the pictures, just to use information about the users to target advertising more precisely.
But the enormous consternation that lasted a couple of days at the beginning of this week, a sort of wildfire panic about social-media corporations and the far-reaching grip on our personal lives that we have willingly given them, reflected a sudden fear about what we have been madly doing with all our photos and confidences these past five years.
Even before Instagram issued its soothing reassurances, technology writers were mocking "crybabies" who were surprised that their public pictures may not be entirely controllable. "Stop caring about your dumb photos," wrote Sam Biddle in Gizmodo. "If anything you Instagrammed were so sacred, you wouldn't have put it on Instagram."
When the news about the revised terms of service broke, Wired magazine immediately posted instructions on how to delete your Instagram account. It warned, wryly, "Of course you'll need to find another photo service to see photos of meals and your friend's feet."
It was indeed hard to feel sympathy for the indignant Instagrammers. Hasn't the idea behind Instagram – and Facebook itself – always been that everything you upload is to be shared? If someone else likes our photos and copies and posts them, doesn't that tend to make us feel proud? Aren't you proud of your meals and your feet … and your kids?
Yeah, about the kids. This is the thing that has bugged me from day one about family-life blogging and Facebook/Instagram posting. Sure, parenting is a complex and exhausting practice and one wants to discuss its vicissitudes with others with experience. But when you link descriptions of your kids' bedwetting and photos of the same kid, don't you worry a teensy bit about the kid's consent? Do you worry at all that the hundreds of photos you've posted of your family can be instantly copied and reproduced, and not just legally but by the malicious as well (including teenage bullies once your kids reach junior high)?
The question burned bright this week after the massively controversial "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" blog posting, in which the mother of a disturbed child responded to the Newtown, Conn., shootings by describing in detail the fears she feels about her own violent son.
Liza Long was instantly pilloried for a number of sins, including, of course, "stigmatizing the mentally ill" (a strange obsession of the left, given that the accusation silences a potentially useful discussion about the improvement of psychiatric health care). But the biggest charge against her was that it was unseemly for her to throw her own son to the digital dogs, especially since she posted a photograph of the blond-haired boy alongside her confession. How is the poor kid to avoid being a pariah from now on?
Outraged parents began to search Long's other writings, and found a history of blogging about her dissatisfaction with her children, including some possibly tongue-in-cheek threats to send them to jail.
Those essays would have read like any other mommy blog before her inflammatory confession about her violent son. All parenting blogs are places to vent about the exhausting task of discipline. Let's face it, we all post about our kids' problems. I admit I have used my own toddler as column fodder more than once. And almost any honest parent's diary may provide evidence of impropriety to a determined enemy.
So why do we continue to publish our most private photos and anecdotes about children, in a medium that can never be erased?
I often wonder about the generation that is being raised in public like this – when they're grown up, what attitudes to their own privacy will they have? Will they simply not know what privacy is and not care, accepting that anyone who wants to see into their living rooms at any time will be able to do so with a mouse click, or will they rebel by being far more careful than their parents ever were? (Like the "Cleans" at the end of Jennifer Egan's future-looking novel A Visit From The Goon Squad: young kids resolutely without any of the tattoos or piercings that mark the older generation.)
But we don't need to wait a generation to have this discussion. Recent events, including the commercialization of personal records by Instagram and every other free publishing service, should bring us to think twice now about all this meticulous public documenting of other people's private moments.