Who really owns and controls what you publish online?

I came across this article about how impossible it is to understand just what you are agreeing to when you sign up for Instagram (the fact that this came over in my Facebook feed is slightly ironic – hat tip, Ash).

The article brings up several good points about the impenetrable language in most terms of service statements that make it hard for adults and impossible for most minors to understand exactly what sorts of permissions users are giving those sites. In the case of Instagram, you give them permission to use your images, potentially as a revenue source, with no option to be compensated for that. You also give them very broad access to a lot of your personal information and allow them to share it with any company they wish.

What about your content?

social media buttons
Photo Credit: Flickr from HowToStartABlogOnline.net cc

Such broad permission with your personal information is obviously a concern. But one thing that the article doesn’t highlight is the control that using this closed platform (and others like it) give Instagram over your content:

We can change or end Instagram, or stop you accessing Instagram at any time, for any reason and without letting you know in advance. We can also delete posts and other content randomly, without telling you, for any reason. If we do this, we will not be responsible for paying out any money and you won’t have any right to complain.

Most other social media sites work in a similar fashion. They can remove or alter your content, close shop or sell the entire company (and take all of your content with them), or close your account, thereby removing your access to your own content. And so on.

Closed versus Open Web

There has been a push and pull between the closed and open web for several years now. Closed platforms can make things convenient to publish content and to consume it by aggregating content, but that same feature allows those platforms to monetize the content and, in many cases, to control the content directly.

How important to you is owning or controlling your content?

For people who publish content in any form (words, images, etc), you should consider how important owning and controlling your content is to you before you decide where to publish it. Things to check:

  • Do you own your content or does the platform? If you own it, does your use of their service give them a license to use your content royalty-free? (You’ll have to read the terms of service to know.)
  • Can you export/download your content? Can you then import it to a different platform? Even if you do own your content, if you can’t export it from their platform, you are pretty much out of luck if you want to keep your content but want to close your account or the service itself closes.
  • How much control do you have, if any, over how your content is visually presented? Can you change colors, fonts, layouts?
  • How much control do you have, if any, over how your content is broadcast or shared? Does the platform’s “proprietary algorithm” or their monetization and marketing plan decide who is able to see your content?

Create a digital hub for your web content or personal brand

If you want to retain control over your content, having your own website or blog (protip: choose an open platform like WordPress) is a good step in that direction. Use it as your digital hub. Then cross-post or share to other services like Facebook or Instagram if you like, with the understanding that you are still giving them some pretty broad permissions, but at least this way, they can’t alter or remove your site’s content or remove your access to it.

Those of you who are building an online personal or small business brand using your username/handle/page name should pay close attention to things like this in terms of service (Facebook Pages, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram):

We can force you to give up your username or close your account for any reason.

On the terms of service page, do a search for words like “name”, “username”, or “account” to find the relevant bits in sea of legalese.

It would be far better to own a domain name (like wendy.blog 🙂 ) and build a brand around that. Your domain name can reflect your Twitter handle, Facebook page name, Instagram account or whatever. They key thing is that you own and control a domain and can connect it to different sites and content, but you can’t do the same with your social media account or username.

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