As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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The Problem(s) With Free

March 27th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, you might have heard from your geekier friends that Google has decided to “power down” their Google Reader service, which, even after they hobbled it, was still a great service. This prompted me to write a lengthy post on the topic . . . just in time to find someone who said it better. I do still have some things that I wanted to add, however, so no concise blog post for you today.

When looking at web services offered by for-profit companies, here is a simple rule: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Companies like Facebook do not make money off their users, they make money off of advertisers, which means that those advertisers are the actual customers, not you. What Facebook is selling to those advertisers is your attention and your data (whether that be direct information like name and hobbies or indirect information like anonymized browsing and social networking trends).

Of course there is a moral component to all of this, nobody wants to be a product, after all, and it is easy to get worked up over having your information traded between third parties, but I’m going to ignore that. What this relationship means is that for companies like Google or Facebook, their loyalty is to their advertisers, not to you. And when it comes down to it, if you are not that good of a product (Google Reader was apparently difficult to monetize), if that product doesn’t sell, they will find a new one. And so Google Reader gets dropped in favor of Google+, whose users are apparently much shinier products. (Of course, there is doubtless more to the decision than this, Google appears to be attempting to build a large, integrated platform with G+ and Reader simply didn’t fit in, I do not begrudge them their business decisions).

On the other hand, when you are paying directly for a service, you are the customer (or at least a customer, there is nothing to keep that service from selling your information). The company has a vested interest in keeping you around, as you provide revenue. That doesn’t make all paid services better than their free equivalents, but a lot of them are.

Of course, this starts to get complicated when you are talking about minors or college students, who are often defined by their inability or unwillingness to pay for things that they could otherwise get for free, so regardless of icky ethical practices or instability, free services will continue to dominate the market, but I imagine that in the coming years we will see an increase sophisticated premium services, and equally sophisticated methods of paying for them.

Finally, much of this post was inspired by NewsBlur, a social RSS reader based on a subscription model (although they do offer a free, limited, account). When I got it working (it took a while due to them being slammed from the Reader announcement), it felt like home: a visually pleasing RSS reader with a solid social network built in. In some ways, I kind of wish that I had jumped the Reader ship earlier, but I was unaware of the alternatives. And although it may sound like they are paying me to say this, I am in fact paying them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stuff that I came across after I had finished writing this post (but that I don’t feel like editing into the post):

  • Tobias Buckell mentioned a post by Jeremiah Tolbert that talks about why having a website is important. The article goes over some of the stuff that you just read, and other things as well. Also, that rule that I stated above about being the product? Apparently I was remembering it, not creating it (thanks for bursting my bubble, internet). I guess that the idea has just become so deeply embedded in my worldview that I have a hard time remembering that at one point I didn’t know it (“The step after ubiquity is invisibility” and all that)
  • Forbes: Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours – “We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.”
  • NPR’s All Tech Considered: ‘Keep Google Reader Running’ Petition Hits 100K; Fans Audition Replacements – Of course, 100k isn’t that many people to Google, especially considering that Reader doesn’t really fit in with G+ (and probably competes with it).
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