I once had a boss who was confusing and odd and was, it now occurs to me, a bit like Instagram. This was back when I was a lowly cooked-chicken-counter servant at Waitrose. Ah, the good-old days of woe!
In many ways, I liked my job. I mainly liked my job because I only worked 2 hours Monday to Friday, and I worked in the middle of the day, which meant that although I had to put up with the often-horrendous lunch-time rush – never had you seen more people who couldn’t clear up after themselves – I could get up late and go home with plenty of time left before Neighbours started and Paul Robinson attempted to kill someone, or just deeply upset them. At the time, being an artist and trying to navigate my way through the mysterious world of selling paintings at galleries, this enabled me to both keep my dignity and my sanity (everyone who knew me saw that I was making a proper traditional artist effort to not get a real job so as to allow my art to prosper as much as it could in the face of evil modern adversity, but also recognised that I understood the world and that I had to at least work a bit so I wasn’t freakish and alarming to be acquainted with). Working on the cooked chicken-counter was exceedingly hard going, what with so many different characters trying to fight their way to the top and avoid going out the front to serve the dreaded hate-filled customers, in particular that bloody annoying one who always asked for a variety of cooked chicken that we hadn’t and would never ever have in stock. It was all about politics, you see. Providing you kept that in mind then you’d make it through OK. It wasn’t quite as bad as over at the Freshly Baked Goods counter – this was where the dog-eat-dog world of supermarket politics often spiralled completely out of control, with the effects rippling through the Confectionery Department and even sometimes Customer Services – but things could get pretty heated at times. Christmas time was by far the worst. All of us, in our Santa hats, annoyed, hot and bothered.
But like I was saying, I once had a boss who was a bit like Instagram.
Take November, for example. When it got to November – which I only made the mistake of allowing to happen once – rumour started to circulate about a big meeting coming up. One of those meetings where all kinds of staff members who never normally mix would surely be allowed to stand near one another for the very first time, fuelling the social side of the politics further and giving yet more weight to the popular argument that men in suits aren’t capable of empathy or humour (I have since had to revise this statement, as sometimes I have myself been a man in a suit). And, sure enough, within days of the rumour starting, official-looking notes were put up in all the departments by invisible strangers who came and went almost as bizarrely as crop circles. Many of us suspected it was the usually innocent-looking Janet — an early morning cleaner, sent to do the management’s dirty work for them. We never did find out, although once, years later, Janet was a bit off with me when I bumped into her in the street. Hmm…
Then the meeting came and we all assembled out the back, in that hallowed place beyond the dirty plastic hanging strips in the door-way where customers always looked in but weren’t allowed in because it was for staff only. It was even worse than I’d thought: men wearing suits which cost more than all of the teenage shelf-stackers collectively earned in one year were standing perversely on one side, and there was a general feeling of someone having just badly farted or taken a covert dump on the floor. David from General Household Products was a pain all throughout the meeting – that I do remember. He was leaning up against an abandoned trolley and it kept creaking menacingly, and everyone knew it was David from General Household Products except our boss, Mr Herbert, who you could tell was getting more and more pissed-off.
“I may or may not be asking more members of staff from various departments to work during our extended Christmas opening hours period,” was one of the memorable unthinkable things that Mr Herbert came out with, and instantly all of us part-time and semi-part-time workers were struck with fear and resentment and revulsion and too much more to write here, but that’s plainly obvious. We weren’t prepared for this horror, and I hated David from General Household Products for playing his part in making Mr Herbert more angry in his typically unnecessary overweight way (David was overweight, Mr Herbert wasn’t). Unlike the hardcore full-time workers and tragic people who actually volunteered to do over-time, we had never been conditioned to perform this oh-so-specific supermarket role, and we felt our human rights were being trampled upon. That Christmas was nightmarish on a number of levels: firstly, I was teamed-up with Jordan from Dairy, who everyone knew was a bit thick and attracted trouble at every possible turn – you couldn’t leave him with a crate of semi-skimmed for fear of what might happen – and secondly I was told I would have to work an unfathomable extra hour a day during the upcoming Christmas period. An hour-a-day might not sound like much to all you hardcore full-time workers – and indeed it sounds like almost nothing to me now – but back then, with my reputation as a rebellious young artist to uphold, it spelt the kiss of death that I knew I sort of needed to become a real artist, so as to overcome it heroically, but at the same time would do anything to avoid (apart from working for the man). And so it was that I left the cooked-chicken-counter for good that following January, making my own personal protest with it. Into the big-wide-world I went, expectant, hopeful and looking forward to many years to come where I wouldn’t be forced to interact with customers or a till (a combination that nobody with a problem with numbers should ever be exposed to, I think you’ll agree). Or Jordan from Dairy. Man he was so fucking annoying.
So we’ve established that my boss was a bit like Instagram: he would say things that sounded not just incredibly vague, but were also worded in such a way that they could be extremely specific – if you read between the lines and spent a ridiculous amount of time actually analysing what the words meant or could mean. Since Instagram revised their terms and conditions to say that they could basically do more or less as they pleased with all their users’ photos and data, you and I know there’s been a massive public outcry. And for good reason: we all see our photos and data as our own private property.
Yet the more philosophical people out there aren’t banging their heads against walls or reverting to drilling holes in their heads just yet (it’s an ancient technique I suggest you never try at home, called Treppaning. Please do head on over to Trepan.com for some interesting reading on the subject…if you dare). Because whatever the reason for Instagram‘s latest-latest announcement – they’re allegedly not planning to sell anyone’s photos to advertising agencies, and apparently respect all our basic human rights to own our own property and not have it used without our permission, more or less – the fact of what it means is still the same. Instagram may or may not be planning to use our photographs and sell them on, but other people out there most certainly are. Ever since the arrival of Google, people have being stealing things that don’t belong to them and making money off the back of others: images, text, illustrations, novels. I’ve even had my own novel stolen and made available for download, so I know how bloody irritating that can be. For me, all the news about Instagram really highlights is how clueless the majority of the population are to copyright infringement and similar things. Which isn’t their or your fault of course. Like Jordan from Dairy or David from General Household Products, most people never have to deal with copyright or worry about these things, so it’s bound to be a shock.
Without wanting to defend Instagram – I’m thinking they have enough money and people to do this on their own, so I’ll not feel too guilty about it – just remember this: naughty as Instagram were for making out that they could do whatever they wanted with our images – the phrase massive U-turn after a crazy amount of people closed down their accounts does come to mind – they did at least tell their users that this was what they were planning to do in January of next year. People who steal images, novels, text and data don’t generally have a habit of doing that, especially when it’s on a grand scale, so it’s not just Instagram and Facebook and the FBI who we need to watch out for.
So, as pointed out by numerous people in the comments section of every major online news source which has published this story, it comes down to one thing: if you don’t want Instagram using your photos without your permission, get off Instagram and stay off it for good. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re completely safe, of course, it just means that the likelihood of your images becoming someone else’s property via Instagram is somewhat reduced. As for watermarking your images and that being a bullet-proof solution, as some have suggested, you might want to rethink that before you start gloating that you’ve tricked the system. Software is easily available that can take a rubbish looking image and boost its quality, not to mention remove the watermark and make it extremely saleable. Instagram might have promised that they don’t intend to sell your photographs, but what’s to stop them licensing them? Yes, it’s time to read those terms and conditions again, and that goes for anything you sign up to online. Because privacy is dead. Privacy online doesn’t really exist anymore, save for online banking and password protected services — or so we all hope. It died the moment the internet started, and it’s not coming back any time soon, so it’s time to start planning for the future.