Facebook is in a bit of hot water these for doing what it does best, i.e. separating people from their personal information at an industrial scale and selling it to anyone with a pulse and a bank account. As with any scandal, the Facebook fracas has garnered numerous takes decrying the company’s ruthlessness, or virtue, depending on your view of things. But this piece from Mashable’s Casey Williams caught our eye. In it, Williams says that free labor is the key to Facebook’s profitability:

You do two jobs for Facebook. You generate data and produce content. Facebook is essentially an advertising company, and every bit of information you disclose is data advertisers can use to influence how and what you buy. Sometimes it’s fairly benign (maybe you do want that Blue Apron subscription). Other times it’s not… You also create most of what’s on Facebook. You write posts, share photos, and capture live video of speeches, protests, and police shootings. The time and effort you sink into crafting a poetic confession, an impassioned rant, a thoughtful reflection on the day’s news — think of it as work you do for Facebook. You’re working to keep the site humming and vibrant, and you’re creating reasons for others to keep scrolling. Your job is to drive people to the platform and keep them there. 

It’s a provocative thesis and an interesting way to frame the issue. Working for free is a hot-button issue in creative circles. Some embrace it, others view it as a distasteful but necessary means of raising your exposure, others as sheer exploitation.

But where does Instagram fall on that spectrum?

Photographers recognize it as a vital platform for gaining the eye of photo editors and landing paid work, but how many photographers can say they’ve gotten more out of Instagram than they’ve put in?

We’ve seen photographers and visual artists pack PhotoPlus Expo seminars where Instagram is discussed and it’s often in the context of how to grow followers and gain the eye of an easily distracted audience. One recurring piece of advice is to be active on the platform–posting quality work daily (or multiple times a day) and engaging with your followers. In other words, to build an audience, you’ve got to work for Instagram. For free.

Which leaves us with the original question: is Instagram exploiting you, helping you, or both? We don’t know the answer, but we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update: We’ll post a few good responses here.

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