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.


Comments

    I don't understand the "raised question" section, is this a problem with applying the past tense to the noun 'question' or the structure that the tense is applied with? On its own, "Raised question" is pretty bad, but what about something such as: "The question Dave raised on the 15th?".

    If that's not acceptable, how do we refer to a question which has been "raised", as in, how do we talk about the event of the creation of the question in the past tense?

      It's the lack of an article (definite or indefinite) that's the issue. Nothing wrong with "The question Dave raised on the 15th", because there's an article.

        The first two problems you pointed out appear to me to be either typos or just incorrect mode mistakes often made by people of whom English is a second language.

        eg:
        The language we proposed also raised question[s] about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement.

        ...

        Our main goal is to avoid things [like] advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience.

        The redundancy in the final sentence doesn't add any confusion. While that sentence can be read to mean two different things, I think its fairly clear when read in context of the release.

        I think that it needs to be stressed that it was a blog post, not a press release/official statement. I don't think these mistakes are cardinal sins.

          I disagree. It's attributed to the founder, its release was foreshadowed by Instagram, and it's where journalists seeking a statement are being directed. A company blog unquestionably represents professional communication, which means professional standards of writing apply.

    All valid points, Angus. It's extraordinarily common for major companies to make a complete mess of their communications.

    And to expect us to believe that it was a "misunderstanding" is ludicrous. As you say, there's no possible confusion in that part, just a "we got caught, we were misquoted by ourselves!" statement.

    Also the "we do not have plans" statement is just as disingenuous as the rest.

    I personally don't have plans to do most things but it hardly means I'm not going to do them.

    I thought the whole Instagram copying all your contacts thing might have put people off but it hasn't. However people living under corrupt regimes should be very worried.

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