I used to work for a very large survey company. They conduct phone surveys, mail surveys, in-person surveys, and they gather data automatically using various gadgets, apps, and plug-ins. They gather all the data they can from as many sources as they can.

Let’s say you’re sitting at home one day and you get a call from this reputable survey company. They’d like to chat with you for a moment [3-5 minutes] about your thoughts on popular TV shows. You pour your heart out regarding Little Chocolatiers and Property Virgins. (If this were a written survey, you’d be given a full blank page to communicate these strong feelings you have about entertainment programs.) You then answer a few quick demographic questions—your age, race, education level, household income, the usual—and are thanked for helping the TV industry find out what you, the viewer, think about their offerings.

At this point you could reasonably assume that the survey was about the quality and direction of current TV shows. Of course, you also disclosed some demographic data, which makes sense; the networks would like to know what 40-to-50-year-old Asian women think about this season’s reality TV.

But this isn’t the case. The survey was about the demographics. What this large survey company wants to know is that a 40-to-50-year-old Asian woman who graduated from college and has a TV with a cable subscription lives at this address and phone number. This information is fed into the giant bucket of similar information: ages, races, different levels of access to consumer goods, and other metrics that can be summed up, averaged out, tracked over time, and projected into the future.

The free-form opinion you offered wasn’t even recorded. (In a written survey, your handwritten page of opinions would never be read by anyone.) The call-center employee just sat at their terminal, bored to quiet tears, while you described what all is wrong with youngsters these days. The call-center employee typed nothing. They had even been instructed on how to answer if you asked them to read back what you just told them. (Pretend to read back a summarized version from your memory, if you can?)

Your opinion can’t be programmatically consolidated or calculated. It’s hard to divine a meaning out of it that can be grouped with other similar opinions, and even if it were easier, the industry is just not that interested in it. There are plenty of people who will pay for pools of numeric, strictly typed data; there are few people who will pay for reams of subjective opinions.

There are notable, if minor, exceptions to this. Yelp, for instance, analyzes the (subjective, free-form, opinionated) reviews its users submit. They then try to divine usable, cumulative information out of those reviews: do many customers mention the beignets at this restaurant? Are there a lot of references to long waits?

You could also argue that Google’s does something similar with its statistical, cumulative approach to web search. They analyze lots and lots of free-text to figure out what web pages are most relevant to waterproof iPad cases. But note that Google’s money doesn’t come from excelling at this; it comes from excelling at showing you targeted ads, and selling those ad-spots to people with money to spend on them. Google has to make its analytical, statistical, meaning-from-free-text search product good for its users or there’ll be no users to show those targeted ads to. But Google doesn’t value the quality of your search queries; they don’t want to own them; they don’t care too much whether they can re-publish them or not.

I bring this up because in the wake of Instagram’s new, Facebooky terms of service, I’m seeing some worry that their plan might be to sell users’ photos. After all, these terms seem to say that Instagram reserves the right to use these photos however they want. Perhaps they will sell my cute baby pictures to baby magazines? This is incredibly unlikely for three reasons:

  1. Your photos aren’t that good.
  2. Photos aren’t that valuable. Even professional photos are incredibly cheap. Hence,
  3. No magazine or website will risk using a photo with a sketchy, second-hand license when they could buy a better one for peanuts.

What they might do is use “interesting” photos (those with many views, likes, and comments) in Facebook’s business listings. If restaurant X doesn’t provide its own photos of the pizza they serve, here are five photos of said pizza taken by Instagram users. While some users might still object to this sort of use, it would be a far cry from “selling photos”, and it would not be a money-making scheme for Instagram. It would be a minor feature intended to beef up Facebook’s business listings, a way of keeping up with Google, Yelp, and Foursquare. Platform hygiene, basically.

Real money will likely come from the boring, old approach every startup hopes to avoid, and few end up avoiding: gathering targetable information about the users (demographics, location, social graph, habits, etc.) and using it to deliver ads to them. A bonus second step—again, usually more theoretical than practical—would be to talk users into advertising to each other, and to non-users. (“Check out this awesome Absolut ad I liked on Instagram!”) The photo “theme” of the app is sticky bait for the user, a reason to come back and pour more data into Facebook’s big user-data bucket.

You can see something similar going on with Twitter, by the way. They’re not at all interested in your tweets as prose. They’d probably prefer it if all tweets came from apps and “Tweet this” links; those are standardized, formalized, and free of all that pesky human abstraction. Of course, they need enough funny/pithy/scandalous free-form tweets to keep baiting users back to the service, but the real money is in having you retweet that link to the Paranormal Activity 7 trailer that your friend robo-tweeted from Gawker, not in selling postcards with your witty tweets on them.

This is still controversial stuff. But the controversy should focus more on large companies’ access to, ownership of, and sales plans for big bunches of data blobs that encapsulate how we the users are attractive to advertisers. Concerns over large companies’ plans to sell our precious works of art are misplaced; not because Google and Apple and Facebook respect our creativity and expression (which, I’m sure, most people in those companies do) but because Viacom and ClearChannel and GE don’t value them.

Put another way, the Advertising department has a lot of money to spend; the Photo department does not.

I don’t know what Instagram’s ultimate plan is, and it’s very likely that they don’t know either. But it probably has nothing to do with selling or abusing your photos. Your photos just aren’t worth much.