Earlier this week, Instagram published a blog detailing information on how its algorithms work and why transparency is important when it comes to building trust. With that in mind, when will Instagram tell us how much money it makes from allowing the millions of possible copyright infringements that happen every single day?
Penned by Instagram head Adam Mosseri, the blog post seeks to demystify how the platform chooses what you see in your feed, why some posts get more engagement than others, and how Instagram decides what to show you on the Explore page. Mosseri explains the countless signals that Instagram takes from you using the app to then shape your experience, figuring out who you want to see, and what sort of content you enjoy.
“The Explore page,” Mosseri explains, “was designed to help you discover new things.” He goes on: “To find photos and videos you might be interested in, we look at signals like what posts you’ve liked, saved, and commented on in the past.” This is exactly what you would expect, which also explains why community/feature accounts have such a heavy presence in the average Explore page. Glancing at my own, around four out of every ten posts are from accounts that do not share original content. Almost undoubtedly, many of these accounts post content for which they do not have permission.
Freebooting Makes Money
Posting photos and videos that you don’t own or have permission to post breaches Instagram’s Terms and Conditions, so why would Instagram be so keen to promote accounts that ignore this rule? Very simply: this is prime content, prompting users to spend more time on the app. If the intellectual property owner doesn’t complain, the infringement goes unnoticed. In addition, a large enough proportion of creators don’t mind seeing their work being used, happy for the exposure, or simply indifferent to the theft as these copyright infringements have been completely normalized by the platform. Feature accounts that steal people’s photos and videos typically have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of followers, and each day views of copyright-breaching content must be in the millions.
These views account for a massive proportion of what the average user sees when scrolling Instagram, in turn generating revenue through advertising. Instagram has created a situation where a vast chunk of the content it serves is stolen, relying on the fact that only copyright holders can report it, and creating an environment where such theft is just a regular part of the Instagram experience. Instagram’s Terms and Conditions mean that it cannot be Tumblr, and yet that is exactly what it has become.
Instagram has proven that its algorithms are incredibly smart and you can safely assume that its engineers are more than clever enough to eliminate freebooted content — if they wished. However, such a move would cut into its bottom line, and there's currently no reason for it to voluntarily put a dent in its share price.
Users Deserve More Transparency, Mr. Mosseri
Instagram’s efforts at transparency are welcome, if overdue, and some insights into its algorithms are appreciated, even if it does little more than confirm people’s assumptions. However, if Instagram is genuinely interested in transparency, it should tell us how many posts are freebooted, and how much ad revenue it generates as a result. On what scale are creators are being scammed, and is Instagram making hundreds of millions of dollars as a result?
Mr. Mosseri, if you’re reading, some transparency on this subject would be welcome. We look forward to your next blog post.