Gmail is almost certainly the most important web service I use. It has become the master key for many other tools and services. The scary part is that Google could close my account any given day, and I’d have no recourse because I’m not a paying customer.
Twitter is a service that I use perhaps too much. I have a relatively small but stable audience accumulated over the years. I broadcast a question or a thought whenever I feel like it, and it has become one of the main channels I use to exercise free speech. Again, Twitter could close my account on a whim because they owe me nothing.
Facebook would also fall into this category if I cared, it just happens that I don’t.
So Long Posterous, and Thanks for All the Bits
If you follow this blog you may notice that I’ve migrated it from Posterous to my self-hosted installation of WordPress. I loved Posterous; I thought it was simple, pretty and convenient. However, the quality of the service had degraded noticeably after the Twitter acquisition (e.g. I couldn’t even reply to comments on my posts the last few times I tried). Still, it wasn’t that bad. I could have kept using it while waiting for an easy way to migrate my posts. Twitter promised that “over the coming weeks we’ll provide you with specific instructions for exporting your content to other services.” And it’s only been 21 weeks…
Interestingly, what prompted me to move was a terse email from Twitter asking me to remove a small dataset of public data that I’d shared. There was nothing wrong with the email itself, all it did was point out their terms of service. However, if I had written that email I could have made it much more friendly, as I understand the value of PR (especially with developers and bloggers). It gave me a bad feeling about the inner workings of Twitter as a company. I wondered if one day Twitter might kill my Posterous blog just because, and I figured that I could easily host it myself. Unfortunately there is no alternative to the Twitter service itself (I’ve backed app.net but I don’t expect it to be even remotely equivalent).
My next step will be to associate my other services with an email address at my own domain instead of gmail.com. I may still use Gmail behind the scenes, but I can always take my domain somewhere else. That is, assuming I don’t use *that* email address as the key to my registrar 🙂
For similar reasons I don’t contribute to Quora very often. The 15′ that I may spend on a question gives them much more value than I receive in return. As an aside, who knows how long they’ll be around for, or if they’ll ever come up with a business model. There is even a topic on Quora itself about this. How meta…
I’d much rather be a customer of web services than a product. I would pay a reasonable amount of money for a few things, especially if this removed undesired ads (I don’t care that much about that, because like most people I’ve learned to ignore the vast majority of them).
The problem is that there are not enough people like me. Most people don’t care enough about these issues to pay for the cost of the services they use (as opposed to being “product” and having no rights). There is also a perverse incentive: a service with hundreds of millions of free users is rewarded by the stock market or private investors because in theory they could find a way to sell something to all those “people.” For example, Facebook’s valuation is not justified by its current business model based on display ads. Even at today’s stock price, their price-to-earnings ratio is much higher than that of comparable companies with similar growth rates (see GOOG, YHOO).
Finally, one subtle point that bothers me about the current state of affairs is not that we are just product. That was already the case in the age of TV. Things have gone one step further; we now generate the very content that digital entertainment companies sell to advertisers and feed back to us. In other words, we are Digital Soylent Green.