Stop Being a Product
Or, Reflections Prompted by the One-Year Anniversary of App.net
Yesterday, App.net turned a year old. Most of my friends in “real life” have never even heard of the social network/platform,1 so the anniversary rightly went by unnoticed and unheralded. For me, however, the day that App.net went live last year was the start of a sea change in the way I approach the software I use — a sea change that is still in progress in many ways. What changed? I decided I wanted to stop being a product and start being a customer.
It’s worth reading the original proposal for App.net: a social networking service, for which at least some users pay. This was incredibly audacious for a social networking backbone (though, as App.net founder Dalton Caldwell noted, not completely unheard of in internet services: GitHub, Dropbox, and a number of others offer the same model). Twitter was making it clear that they were following Google and Facebook’s models of selling customer info to advertisers, leaving developers and users of the ecosystem to the whims of whatever made the most sense for sales teams. Facebook’s monetization plans were becoming increasingly annoying (ads in my News Feed? No, that really isn’t why I’m here…). Google’s data-mining was well known but increasingly starting to bother me. All of these had a common thread: they were free to use, on the premise that we don’t mind being advertised to constantly and our data being sold to and analyzed by advertising companies. More and more, though, I did mind. The idea that I would pay for access to a social networking backbone would have seemed crazy at some point; no more.
The web was born and bred on free. In many ways, that has been a good thing. The democratizing effects of free access are well-documented, and people’s ability to publish and read such a wide array of information has been a great boon to the causes of education and liberty. On the other hand, those trends have engendered an expectation that everything digital ought to be free, and this expectation has had a great many deleterious effects as well. We have seen mass piracy of music and video, cutthroat rates (often consisting of “exposure”) for writing, and a flood of terrible content that always threatens to overwhelm the good content available. On balance, I think the web has been a good thing—but it has not been an unalloyed good, and in the last few years an increasing number of people have become dissatisfied with the status quo.
People deserve to be paid for their work, and at some point we have to figure out how to make that happen. Ads have proven insufficient to generate the revenue needed for sustainable business, but they have also incentivized content-providers to aim at generating the most hits, rather than providing the best content. This is not a new problem; the same issue drove a lot of the “yellow journalism” of the last century. The difference is that, coupled with the new, massive data and the disconnecting nature of the web (you don’t read a single “paper” anymore, you read a bunch of articles from various places all over the web), advertisizers have had both the means and the motive to pursue practices that are increasingly proven corrosive to privacy and, in the long run, contrary to the best interests of the public.
The way out—and the way that an increasing number of voices have embraced, including those behind App.net—is to go back to paying for things. (Shocking, I know!) With App.net, Dropbox, GitHub, and many other web services, users pay for access to premium functionality. App.net does not sell my data to anyone; they sell the engineering backbone as a service to me, as well as to developers who want to use that backbone to create their own services. Likewise, Dropbox doesn’t sell my data, they sell storage. GitHub doesn’t sell my data, they sell version control hosting.
I love this idea. So much so that I’m increasingly pulling out of ad-supported services where I’m the product instead of the customer, and moving toward things I pay for. It makes sure the service’s incentives are aligned with my best interests as a user, rather than orthogonally and possibly detrimentally to my desires. Not least, it makes sure the people building the service I’m using get paid. Those are good things. It costs more, to be sure, but that helps me think through what to use (and what to skip) more carefully, and that’s a good thing, too.2
Now, if we only someone could figure out a good way to do the same thing with music, writing, and video…
Oh, and App.net? It’s the single best social network I’ve ever used—the quality of conversations I’ve had there is far, far better than that I’ve had anywhere else. You should check it out.
- App.net is, strictly speaking, server infrastructure and an API—that is, a set of software tools that people can use to build services and the servers to run those services. It allows everything from Twitter-like conversation streams to personal journaling apps to chat rooms or clients to file storage to photo sharing. It is not just a social network; it is a way to build social networks. Curious? You can join for free, and only upgrade to a paid account if it makes sense. ↩
- Most of these services have free tiers, but—importantly—those free tiers are subsidized by the paying customers, not by ad sales. ↩