The Real Instagram Lesson: Poor Writing Gets You Into Trouble

It shouldn’t surprise us that Instagram, a service which is all about sharing photos, hasn’t proven so effective when it comes to communicating with words. Some of the outcry over its updated terms of service reflects an inflated sense of entitlement: all free services have to be paid for somehow. However, Instagram also has some pronounced language problems of its own that it will need to address.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

In a blog post earlier today attributed to co-founder Kevin Systrom, Instagram says it is working to clarify its updated terms to make its intentions clearer and stop everyone freaking out and jumping to alternatives because of its advertising plans. I’m particularly struck by this paragraph:

The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question. Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience. Instead, we want to create meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.

With my Mind Your Language hat on), there are several points of interest here. I appreciate this post would have been hastily composed, but I also imagine it was endlessly discussed and tweaked by the Instagram management and PR team. Regardless, it has several problems:

  • ‘Raised question’ is an incorrect and horrible phrase. You can ‘raise the question’ or ‘raise questions’, but you can’t pause midway between the two.
  • “Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience” is painfully awkward and easily misinterpreted (as well as using ‘likes’ instead of ‘like’). Is Instagram really positing the existence of “apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience”? I doubt it. A cleaner version of this sentence might say: “Our main goal is to avoid banner advertising in our app, since that would detract from the Instagram user experience.”
  • The final sentence can be read as saying the goal is for the user, not Instagram, to create a self-sustaining business. The phrase ‘at the same time’ at the end is also redundant, since that meaning is clearly conveyed by ‘while’.

If this is the best standard of communication Instagram can achieve, it shouldn’t surprise us that people are confused by its statements. Shorter sentences and proofreading are always useful tools.

With that said, I don’t think that Instagram’s original terms of service merely “raised the question” of whether photos might appear in advertisements; they stated clearly that this could happen. There was no ambiguity about this statement:

You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions.

Ultimately, I don’t think the current drama is going to kill Instagram. We’ve seen similar waves of social media rage every time Facebook makes changes, but that hasn’t led to a mass exodus. However, if Instagram wants to minimise these kinds of issues, it needs to hire more people who know how to write clearly and accurately.

Lifehacker’s Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.

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