Reports that Facebook's Instagram lost almost a quarter of its daily users a week after it rolled out and then withdrew policy changes may have been "cherry-picking" statistics, but they may still point to a larger problem.
Earlier this month, Instagram, which Facebook bought for $US715 million ($689 million) this year, suffered widespread backlash from users who feared the photo-sharing service would use their pictures for commercial purposes without compensation.
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According to data compiled by online tracker AppData and reported by the New York Post and wire news agencies, the number of daily active Instragram users who accessed the service via Facebook bottomed out at 12.4 million as of Friday, compared with a peak of 16.4 million the week before.
Instagram disputed the AppData survey, which was compiled from users that have linked the photo service to their own Facebook accounts - historically between 20 and 30 per cent of Instagram members.
"This data is inaccurate. We continue to see strong and steady growth in both registered and active users of Instagram," a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
Looking out over a broader time frame, Instagram's monthly active users edged up to 43.6 million as of Friday, an increase of 1.7 million over the past seven days, according to AppData.
"We'll have to monitor the data over the coming weeks to gain perspective on trends in Instagram's performance," AppData marketing manager Ashley Taylor Anderson said in an email.
The popular app, which allows people to add filters and effects to photos and share them over the internet or smartphones, experienced the drop over the brief, often-volatile holiday period.
Other popular apps also saw slippage in usage over the same period, and some were more pronounced. Recommendation site Yelp, for instance, saw daily active users - again via Facebook - slide to a weekly low of half a million on Thursday, from a high of 820,000 one week ago.
In an opinion article on Mashable over the weekend, Chris Taylor noted that while the one-in-four statistic was an incomplete picture that applied only to Instagram users on Facebook, the surveyed sample still represents 44 million out of 100 million users.
"(...) which is a pretty massive sample size in any statistician's book, especially when the sample contains no inherent bias. If pollsters had canvassed a random 44 per cent of likely voters prior to the [US] Presidential election, not even Mitt Romney would have been able to argue with their numbers," Taylor said.
While AppData told the Post on Friday it was "pretty sure the decline was due to the terms of service announcement", it has now issued a statement saying: "Though the terms of service change spurred a lot of negative media attention and complaints from users, the decline in Facebook-connected daily active users began closer to Christmas, not immediately after the proposed policy changes. The drop between December 24 and 25 seems likely to be related to the holiday, during which time people are travelling and otherwise have different routines than usual. A number of other apps saw similar trends, including Skype, Pandora, Pinterest and Yelp."
Controversial revision to terms of service
The sharp slide in activity highlighted by AppData drew attention to the controversial revision to Instagram's terms of service that, among other things, allowed an advertiser to pay Instagram "to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata)" without compensation.
The subsequent public outrage prompted an apology from Instagram founder Kevin Systrom. In December, a California Instagram user sued the company for breach of contract and other claims in what may have been the first civil lawsuit to stem from the controversial change.
Instagram subsequently reverted to some of its original language.
The move renewed debate about how much control over personal data users must give up to live and participate in a world steeped in social media.
Analysts say Facebook, the world's largest social network, was laying the groundwork to begin generating advertising revenue, by giving marketers the right to display profile pictures and other personal information, such as who users follow in advertisements.
According to Business Insider Intelligence, Facebook already controls nearly a fifth - or 18.4 per cent - of mobile display advertising revenue in the US.
with Reuters, Mashable