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December 2012

Instagram didn’t get the tone wrong

I hesitate to raise the Instagram topic on here. The controversial terms and conditions and subsequent ‘clarification’ have already received wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere.

But there’s a writing angle to the whole thing that needs some airing. The whole story is already being co-opted as a case study in the importance of clear communication and getting the tone right. This worries me, because that’s exactly what it isn’t, at least not in the way that’s being suggested.

This was the main offending paragraph in the terms and conditions:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

There is nothing wrong with the tone of this paragraph. It scores highly on clarity, using plain language, active verbs, personal pronouns (us and you) – all the things writers go on about every day.

There is a lot wrong with the content of the paragraph, at least according to thousands of Instagram users. But that’s not a language issue – it’s a policy issue. Any writers trying to use this as an example of the importance of ‘tone of voice’ are misinterpreting the problem. To an expert in tone of voice, every problem looks like a tone of voice issue.

The situation isn’t helped by Instagram’s disingenuous ‘clarification’, which tries to imply that this was all a miscommunication caused by ‘confusing’ language.

Again, this statement from Instagram has been hailed in various places as a good example of crisis communication – clear and helpful in the way the Ts and Cs weren’t.

But again, this is completely wrong. The Ts and Cs were absolutely clear, even if their content was controversial.

By contrast, the ‘clarification’ is slippery, mealy-mouthed and contradictory.

Here’s how it starts.

Thank you, and we’re listening

Yesterday we introduced a new version of our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service that will take effect in thirty days. These two documents help communicate as clearly as possible our relationship with the users of Instagram so you understand how your data will be used, and the rules that govern the thriving and active Instagram community. Since making these changes, we’ve heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean.

Note the spectacularly passive-aggressive headline. The ‘Thank you’ attempts to characterise all this as a friendly exercise in helpful feedback, rather than a furious outcry at being taken for a ride. Note also how the objectors are characterised as ‘confused and upset’, as though they are bewildered lost sheep. As far as I could see, the objectors weren’t remotely confused and, far from upset, were very angry.

It goes on:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone.

This is the most disingenuous part of the whole piece. Again there’s that emphasis on ‘eliminating the confusion’, as though all this is down to the language being unclear. Then comes the massively patronising ‘Legal documents are easy to misinterpret’. The clear subtext is ‘You’re all getting het up because you don’t understand this complicated legal stuff – don’t worry, we’ll try and speak more slowly this time.’

The next paragraph relates to the main offending lines in the terms and conditions quoted above.

Advertising on Instagram

From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

This sounds pretty good at first – the blunt honesty of ‘Instagram was created to become a business’ (actually a meaningless truism) and ‘To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.’ But there’s some really slippery stuff going on. Note how ‘it is not our intention to sell your photos’ isn’t the same as saying ‘we won’t sell your photos’. Despite the forthrightness of the tone, the message is still unclear – will you or won’t you?

Then there’s the continuing insistence that this is a problem with 'interpretation', culminating in the Orwellian ‘We are working on updated language’.

A reminder – here’s the offending paragraph:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

And here’s what they’re saying now:

To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.

The language here doesn’t need ‘updating’, it needs retracting.

I won’t go on through the rest of statement, but the whole thing reminds me of a politician talking in confident, clear-sounding language – full of ‘let’s be clear’ and ‘we're listening’ – without actually being very clear at all. It’s tonally beguiling, but fundamentally deceptive.

If anything, this whole episode is a demonstration of the slippery charms of tone of voice. The terms and conditions were an example of clear language being used to convey information as simply as possible – it just happened to be controversial information.

The ‘clarification’ is an example of tone of voice being used to obscure and mollify. Almost like a filter applied to a photo, giving it nice fuzzy edges and an air of authenticity.

Given that the clarification has been largely well received, this has become an interesting case study in the power of tone of voice – but one that should make writers, me included, feel pretty uncomfortable.

An intere ting pu lication


I’ve recently worked on an unusual project with Liverpool design company SB Studio. It’s a book about their company, or more accurately about everything except their company.

The title is The world without and the idea is to imagine a world without SB. The jobs that would never have been done, the people who would never have been employed, the office that would never have been occupied. And true to the premise, the book is written without including the letters S or B.

I was aware of a French novel called La Disparition by Georges Perec, which is written entirely without the letter ‘e’. So I thought it would be interesting to try it for SB, albeit not quite to novel length. It's a tall order, ruling out common words such as is, was, does, as, so, about, be and been, as well as most plurals. Not to mention the word design.

But the idea is that you'll flick through the whole book without realising the self-imposed limitation, until the pay-off at the end.


Each desolate and empty spread imagines the various dimensions of life that would be different without SB – “Think of the flipchart unflipped / The experience unexperienced / Each tale untold / Each endline unwritten.”

The main text links to a series of endnotes going into more depth, with Ss and Bs included. As the penultimate footnote states, “When it came to the footnotes, we let ourselves off the hook. We’re not completely crazy.”


As well as being a playful exercise, the idea is a celebration of the creative power of constraints. The trickier the brief, the more enjoyable the process of finding an answer. It’s also a surprisingly good way to focus on what you actually contribute as a company. As George Bailey finds out in It’s A Wonderful Life, imagining the world without you can be an illuminating experience.

Copies of the book (beautifully produced) are available on request from theworldwithout.co.uk

Happy Birthday Polite

Picture 4

We’re reasonably pleased to report that Disappointments Diary is being stocked at the Polite shop at the Hayward Gallery over Christmas.

It’s the only place the diary will be physically stocked, so if you’re based in London and want to try before you buy, you know where to go.

You should go anyway. Polite is a quietly brilliant company that has spent 12 years working with artists including David Shrigley, Harry Hill, Peter Blake, Magda Archer, Scott King, Factory Records, StudioThomson and plenty others. You have probably seen their greetings cards in various design shops. They also produce limited edition books and postcard sets. The aim is to make art more commercially accessible by producing affordable but desirable objects. And they are always beautifully produced.

Polite is celebrating its 12th birthday and the shop opened at midday today, 12/12/12, so they are obviously good at planning things too.

More details of the shop here and on Design Week.

The diary is still for sale online at disappointmentsdiary.com