IT lessons from the Instagram fiasco

Credit: Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

Just about every news outlet on the web picked up the story yesterday that Instagram was altering its terms-of-service to allow them to use member photos without permission.  

Before you knew it, Facebook and Twitter were awash with posts about the change and almost none of it was good. People were justifiably up in arms. I wrote a piece in which I called the terms "social networking suicide" and I predicted they would be changed by the end of the week.

It only took until the end of the day for Instagram to write a groveling blog post apologizing to its user base and confirming in no uncertain terms that users, not Instagram or its corporate parent Facebook, owned and controlled their content: "Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos."

It all happened so quickly it was a bit mind-boggling, but the entire episode could serve as an object lesson for CIOs out there who are dealing with a growing consumerization culture in the enterprise.

It's no longer command-and-control and send out the latest directive and let the users be damned. Suddenly the users are your customers. You're more of a service organization than ever before and you need to respond to the needs and concerns of your customers just as Instagram did yesterday.

With that in mind, let's look at four lessons every CIO could learn from yesterday's Instagram fiasco:

1. Words Matter (a lot).

When the Powers that Be at Instagram woke up yesterday ready to send out that shiny new Terms of Service, I can't imagine they were prepared for the reaction. It turns out that words matter and some people read them very carefully. In today's hyperconnected world, it doesn't take long for angry outcries to spread hither and yon. You need to think carefully about how you communicate with your users and the possible consequences of policy changes.

2. Think About the Impact of Your Decisions

As you go through your work day, you are very likely making decisions based on what you think is best for the organization. No matter what decision you make, you are probably never going to please everyone, and that shouldn't be your goal, but you need to consider impact of your decisions on the ability of your employees to do their work. If you make a stringent policy that favors security over usability, for example, you could inadvertently be tying the hands of your users. You have to think about how your decision fits the context of your organization and how you get work done or you could have a lot of angry users, just as Instagram did yesterday.

3. Listen to your customers

When things go wrong, listen to your customers -- the employees in the organization you serve. If they're extremely unhappy with your decision, take the time to figure out why. If you don't, things can spin out of control very quickly. Instagram saw a swift backlash and they heard what customers were saying and dealt with it. You should too.

4. React Quickly

What you don't want to do is let a situation fester. Instagram gets points for seeing clearly it made an error and taking steps immediately to fix it, apologize and move on. That lesson may be tough for an enterprise IT department to swallow, but if you made a mistake, own up to it and move on as quickly as possible. 

Instagram might not have handled the initial change very well, but what it did do was listen to its customers and it reacted quickly to fix the situation. The next time you have a policy brouhaha at your company, remember this and you too could snuff it out before it gets out of control.

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