I like paying for good software. There are applications I use every day, some for hours a day, that make my experience on the web and on my computers better. I have paid for Reeder on three platforms, Tweetbot on two1, Pinboard, and many others. I like to pay, because I value my time, my experience, and my productivity.
I also like to pay because I value my privacy.
Don’t get me wrong– I am a Google addict, using Gmail practically from the beginning, GChat, Google Calendar, Google+, Google Reader, etc, etc. I have a Facebook account (although I recently removed my original account from 2005). I spent quite a bit of time on Twitter. These are g are reat places to do great work and to have a lot of fun. They are key parts of my professional and personal life. All of these services, however, built around the model of selling me. They offer a real modern day example of TANSTAAFL. Nothing leaves my pocket, but massive hoards of data are used to direct advertising my way and some of that data is even sold to other companies. Knowing your customers has always been valuable, and the price of “free” is my very identity.
Now, generally I think that these major companies are good stewards of my privacy. As a budding data professional, I know just how difficult and meaningless it would be for any of these companies to truly target me rather than learn about a cloud of millions people moving at once. I also believe they realize how much of their business model requires trust. Without trust, giving up our privacy will feel like an increasingly large ask.
I value my privacy, but I value good software as well. Right now, I have not found alternatives for many “free” services that are good enough to make up for the cost of my privacy. I am a willing participant in selling my privacy, because I feel I get more value back than I am losing.
But, privacy is not the only reason I wish there were alternative services and software I could buy.
I was probably pretty sloppy in this post interchanging “software” and “services”. Many of the websites or software I mentioned are merely front ends for a more valuable service. Gmail is not the same thing as email. Reeder is actually a software alternative (and more) to Google Reader’s web-based front end for a news aggregator. GChat is just a Jabber/XMPP client. Ultimately, much of what I do around the internet is about moving structured data around between peers and producer-consumer relationships. All of the great things that made the web possible were protocols like HTTP, TCP/IP, etc. And the protocols of todays web are the standardized APIs that allow programmers a way to interact with data. Great, innovative software for the web is being built that ultimately change the way we see and edit data on these services. The common analogy here is that of a utility. The API helps users tap into vast networks of pipes and interact with the flow of information in new, exciting ways.
To get a sense of how amazing new things can be done with an API look no further than IFTTT. It is like a masterful switching station for some of the most useful APIs on the web. Using Recipes on IFTTT, I can do something amazing like this:
- Find a really cool link from a friend on Twitter.
- Save that link to Pinboard, a great bookmarking site, with tags and a description so that I can find it later easily.
- Add tags to the Pinboard bookmark for the social sites I want to share on, e.g. to:twitter to:facebook to:linkedin to:tumblr, all of which are special tags that I use with the IFTTT API.
- IFTTT, which is linked to my Pinboard account, looks occasionally to see any recently saved links. It finds a new link with those special tags (called Triggers).
- Each of those special tags tells IFTTT to make a new post on a different social networking site sharing my link (sometimes with tags, sometimes with the description, sometimes with nothing, all of which I set up) seamlessly without any user interaction.
- My cool link gets sent strategically where I want it to be sent without every leaving the site. I just clicked one button and added the right tags.
This kind of interaction model is impossible without agreed upon standards for sites to read and write information to one another.
The open API which made it so easy to innovate quickly from the outside– Facebook’s Platform, the Twitter API, etc– is under a serious existential threat. The truth is, these darlings of Web 2.0 don’t have a great idea about how to make money. The free web has almost entirely depended on advertising revenues to turn a profit. But how can these companies make money if I’m not using their webpage or their website to get access to my data?
Do you see the part that I slipped in there? These companies have lost site of one very important part of the equation– the content was free because the users created it. Its our data.
Twitter seems to be on the verge of removing or limiting critical portions of the their API at the expense of many developers building new ways to interact with Twitter data, and, more importantly, all of their users who have joined Twitter because it was a powerful platform, not just a fun interactive website. Their tumultuous corporate culture has landed here because they decided that the promise of big revenues for their investors is not enhanced by people accessing Twitter through unofficial channels. Facebook has made similar moves in light of its short, but disastrous history as a public company.
If things shake out the way they seem to be, the sexy startups of Web 2.0 will turn away from the openness conducive to gaining users as they mature. These sites will consolidate and limit the experience, pushing for more page views and time on their site by making it hard to leave. They are rebuilding America Online2, trying to make it so that their webpage becomes synonymous with “the Internet” for their users. Want your ads to be worth more money? Make it hard to change the channel.
It is for this reason that I am supporting App.net. The commitment is a little steep, until you consider how valuable these services have become. For the cost of one pretty nice meal out with my girlfriend, I am purchasing one of the best ways to communicate on the web. I am supporting a model for good software that means that user experience and needs are paramount. I am purchasing customer service because I am sick of ad companies being the customer while I am stuck as the product. I am paying for access so that there is a large competitive market vying for the best way for me to interact with my data. I am paying because I am ready, no desperate, for great consumer software and services that live and breathe to optimize my experience. I used to trust the free web for this, but their business model and their success means they don’t need me as much as they need their advertisers anymore.
Please join me in supporting App.net. Even better, please join me in finding ways to buy great software to support the products make our lives more fun and our work more efficient and productive3.
This is the path to a successful Web 3.0.