Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

Never Trust A Commercial Platform

This week everyone is freaking out about the change in Instagram's terms of service and privacy policy. I won't go into detail – the New York Times already did that – but the gist is this:  Along with a slew of new privacy protection Facebook & Co. have snuck in language that looks rather familiar:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, 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, without any compensation to you.

We saw this several years ago on Facebook when they introduced a social-selling model to their advertising. It was a shock and garnered a fairly large amount of privacy investigation. Eventually it was tabled and then reworked into what we see today ("Hey! Your friend [Insert Name] just listed this [Insert Page]"). Same game, but fresh community to play it with.

The Year That Was

It's evident that 2012 was the year of social network crackdowns. It should also have been a year representing a loss of innocence for those institutions and small businesses using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as marketing platforms. But I still hear a cry of frustration and – frankly – a lot of whining from these groups.

Early in the year Facebook introduced its Timeline view for profiles and pages. It was a shock to the system for many who used Pages as a way to represent their brand. For university web workers there were some not-so-welcome tweaks to how things got displayed to visitors.

Back in March we saw Google change its privacy policies to include sharing of any and all user data across its services – especially Google+.

In June, Twitter announced coming changes to their API that would prove to have a profound effect on how developers could access and use tweets.  In August, those changes began rolling out and the cries of frustrated marketers and programmers were heard 'round the Internet.

And here, at the end of 2012, what we all expected to happen as a result of Facebook's $1 billion purchase of Instagram has finally been made explicit.

Some year.

Too Much Trust

But, you see, the problem is not with these services changing their policies and terms to better match their business goals. No. That should be expected. The problem lies in the adoption and expectations of those who try to harness each service as a marketing platform.

Marketing on the web is finally reaching a maturation stage after a bit over a decade of wild west, roll-your-own mentality. In the age of content aggregation and participatory generation, the impetus has moved to creating content rather than supporting it. Or, in other words, creation is king and content can go wherever it pleases.

The beauty of the olden days when brands were embodied in formal websites and blog feeds was that the owner of the site also owned the content and could, to a reasonable extent, control its use. The owner was not compelled or obligated to license content to any person or entity. When we began trusting commercial, for-profit services like Facebook and Twitter that all changed. Even worse, our mentality moved from "distribution network" to "content platform" – and that's where marketers got burned.

Sacrificial Customer Targeting

It makes sense to want your content to go where the people are. But it is naïve not to expect a sacrifice. When Facebook begins to ask you to pay to promote your posts so that your audiences will see them, it should make sense to you. The sacrifice could have come earlier in the flow, making your brand pay for your page up front, for instance. Instead, Facebook created a critical mass of brand page users and then made the sell. But we sacrifice so much more than a bit of cash:

  1. Control – never knowing when something (like the Facebook post display algorithm or a new Pages-only feed) will change
  2. Licensing – never knowing when or how our content will be used in an advertisement
  3. Integrity – never knowing how your brand may be affected by a change in service

That's what must be weighed. Is the sacrifice worth the gain? For many it is. For some it is not.

Complaining Is A Waste

Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. Google. Flickr. These companies are not democracies. Facebook feigns this by calling for user input on upcoming changes to their TOS, but they are responsible to shareholders, not their users. Spending an afternoon voicing your dissatisfaction with the changes doesn't do much to help change things. As long as there are money making processes in place and the majority of each service's gigantic user base is indifferent, nothing will change.

We continually pour time and content into these services expecting a reward (for free, I might add) and get angry when our processes have to change. There's an obvious solution, though. Don't use commercial platforms.

The Opportunity for Higher Ed

But you need a platform for pushing this information out. I understand. I really do. What you really need, though, is a not-for-profit, open platform – a real platform – to distribute on.

So let's try this idea out. What about a coalition of colleges and universities that design, build, maintain, and host a platform for doing just this? It doesn't need to be marketed as such – it could easily be sold as a new, "don't-get-screwed" social network to users – but it needs to work and be consistent and stable. Too much of higher ed web marketing and services are bootstrapped to the point of ineffectiveness. That shouldn't be the case.

I've long thought that the higher education sphere is too much talk and not enough action. Universities teach all kinds of things to their students that then never get played out in their own business and marketing practice. Or the other way around. Why shouldn't higher ed be the ones pushing web standards? Why shouldn't they be the innovators?

Bootstrapping is no excuse. Want more students? Do cool things. Want better professors? Do cool things. Want further reach? Do cool things.

It seems the longer I work in and around higher education, the more I see the need to do amazingly different and engaging stuff. Even more, I see a lot of blame-passing and whining. I know I did it when I first started in the industry. But eventually I realized I needed to take some action. Complaining and not doing is what kills any kind of life and energy in... well, anyone.

And here's the secret. Start caring about what you produce and stop caring about your employment. It's hard to face right now. But, if I'm honest, the only way I ever got to do cool things at the last two institutions I worked at was by pushing. I truly valued what I put out under my name, and the name of my university, more than I valued the actual position I held.

This year I've spoken with a lot of people in my higher ed network and the subject of fear has come up a few times. We're afraid to do things in ways our employers never have. This is a huge reason why I started Bravery Media. I think bravery (the virtue) is hard to muster. But I also know that valiant action in the face of adversity is a powerful change agent. If you believe yourself to be talented, knowledgeable, and full of great ideas, act on them. There's no reason to bend to the status quo if it's not working. And there are people around you, myself included, who would love to help you backup that great idea with incredibly brave action.

So. Let's make some cool stuff. Don't let startups have all the fun at your expense.


Want to work with me? Give me a shout over at