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Paying one’s way
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby
I like paying for services that I use. I like being a customer who, hopefully, is valued by a company whose product I enjoy. That is a healthy, honest relationship.

I also like using free services. I truly appreciate people putting time and effort into developing free software, into making free-to-use web sites, and all other forms of volunteering. Their actions make this world a better place.

What I hate, however, is software, services, and media that is funded by advertising. There is an unpleasantness in a company seeing the users of its products as assets to be sold to advertisers. Where I am a user, but somebody else is the customer, there is inevitably going to be a conflict of interest. And if one follows the money, the conflict will always disadvantage those who aren’t paying.

I have been happy to pay for online services; with paid accounts on (amongst others) LiveJournal, Flickr, Github, Spotify, and more recently, App.net, I am happy to deal with companies that (to one extent or another) treat me as a customer.

I am much less happy with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google — companies with desirable products, but that give me no opportunity to be a customer. These companies gather vast amounts of data on their users, and develop closed systems that fail to play fairly with others, because it benefits their real customers — advertisers.

Facebook gives us a convoluted privacy system that encourages over-sharing, and introduces user-hostile features like sponsored posts and Facebook email addresses. Twitter gives us sponsored tweets and buggers about with third-party client software. Google are just evil.

These companies should offer a premium product. They should accept a few pounds a month from users who want to turn off advertising, who want decent API support for client software, who never want to see sponsored content, and who want to be treated like a valued customer.

In the mean time, I’m happy to be a customer of LiveJournal (through all its ups and downs) — that is why I keep blogging here — and am happy to be trying out App.net for microblogging. I like app.net’s attitude, and their up-front desire to take money in return for providing a service.


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These companies should offer a premium product.
I'm assuming that they've considered this and have decided their current business model is more profitable. Facebook is a public limited company whose first duty is to maximise shareholder profits, and I guess they've calculated they can do that most effectively by having advertisers as their customers rather than ordinary people. And I don't think we can realistically expect them to behave any differently: they're a profit-making company, not a kind of National Reunion Service founded on egalitarian, altruistic principles.

LJ have apparently adopted a variant approach that also allows some users to become paying customers while still accepting advertising revenue in connection with those of us who aren't willing to subscribe. (Although in my case I don't see any of the adverts because I've got an advert blocker installed in my browser.)

In a way, I’m not so bothered about Facebook, because they felt a bit creepy from the start. It is hard to like Facebook.

Companies like Twitter and Google are most of a problem to me — they have a media mindshare that makes them important as communication and information carriers, yet they disappoint me with their reliance on advertising revenue.

Yes, I'm disappointed too, and I'd rather they found a more ethical business model that enabled me to trust them more than I do. But unless I become a reasonably sizeable (or majority shareholder) I have almost exactly no influence on their behaviour, nor should I expect to.

This is, of course, precisely what happens when profit-making companies end up in control of something that has some sort of wider social importance. Google, Twitter and Facebook are all, as you say, important communication and media companies that we've all come to rely on to varying degrees. Do I feel entirely comfortable entrusting my private (albeit entirely innocuous) email to Google, trusting Twitter not to shut down my account if someone important takes exception to something I posted, or entrusting certain graph-theoretic data about my friends and family to Facebook? No, not at all. But pragmatically, the usefulness those services provide just about outweighs the negative aspects at the moment, so I put up with it all.

And we can't expect anything else. An alternative would be for the government or some suitably-funded charitable body to set up a non-profit service to (somehow) replace these services and provide them for the general public good. But from what you've said in the past about your views on the public sector, I suspect you wouldn't be in favour.

I guess what I'm saying is: yes, it's unfortunate, no I don't like it either, but this is exactly what profit-making companies do, and we can't realistically expect anything different.

A third path would be to buys products and services from companies that sell to users rather than to advertisers. Profit-making companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon understand their users, and are successful at making their customers feel valued.

And yes, I think I approve of the cheapskates-have-adverts-and-customers-have-more-features business model. It works for LJ, it works for Spotify, and Flickr.

I guess LJ, Spotify and Flickr (I have a subscription to the latter, but not the other two) have done their sums and decided this model works for them, and that Facebook have decided otherwise. It's their call, and we can (and should) grumble, but they're not democratic organisations and we don't get a vote.

No, of course I don’t expect companies to be democratic organisations. But the choice we make as individuals is whether or not to use a service. There is no reason why one needs to use Facebook or Twitter, and it is perfectly reasonable to use competitors to Google’s services.

If users voted with their clicks, and stopped using advertising-funded services (or otherwise managed to bypass advertising online) then it would lead to a realignment of priorities in Facebook and Twitter.

If users voted with their clicks ... then it would lead to a realignment of priorities in Facebook and Twitter.
This is pretty much the central fallacy of most of the market forces rhetoric we hear from all the main political parties. Competition is good, we're told, because businesses will have to improve their game in order to prevent consumers from going somewhere else.

But there are a number of ways in which it either fails to work, or is deliberately undermined by people or organisations with vested interests. In particular, for someone to vote with their feet and switch to a competitor, it has to be worth the bother and there has to be a valid competitor available.

With Facebook, Google and Twitter, the inconveniences haven't reached that threshold for me (not least because I have an advert blocking plugin installed). But there aren't really any viable competitors for Facebook or Twitter.

And let's say I did swear off Facebook - what then? Mark Zuckerberg will neither notice nor give even a minuscule fragment of a damn, nor will any of his shareholders. Meanwhile, it suddenly becomes more difficult for me to keep in touch with a whole bunch of geographically disparate friends I don't see very often. Similarly, suppose I stop using Twitter. I can either just give up on that whole microblogging and brief conversation thing entirely - which I'm not that keen to do right now. Or I can switch to... what? Google Buzz? Menshn?

I see MySpace as the example that Facebook should aspire to — one can hope that a future of dwindling income and irrelevance awaits.

When one adds one’s data to a web site like Facebook, one’s past use of the site becomes an increasing commitment to the site. They see the importance of this, with the increased emphasis they place on the past in the new timeline. However, most people’s use of Facebook is in the here and now; like Twitter, it is about an immediate conversation, and so I think their users are very open to possible transition to another service.

Businesses have to change, improve, and serve their customers, or else they will follow Comet into insolvency. I hope that the significant ownership changes in Facebook in the past year will lead to changes in the way that they interact with their users. Or that a competitor arrives in a blinding flash and without warning everyone changes their affiliation. One can dream.

In the meantime, App.net seems like an interesting alternative to Twitter, with a growing username.

I see MySpace as the example that Facebook should aspire to — one can hope that a future of dwindling income and irrelevance awaits.
Yes, clearly MySpace misjudged something badly. I don't know what it was, possibly they failed to adequately prioritise the interests of their users relative to those of the advertisers, perhaps they just failed to be quite as innovative as Facebook, maybe their new owners (News Corporation - now there's a truly evil company for you) just didn't properly understand how people wanted to use the internet. Probably a mixture of all three. It's not definite that Facebook, Twitter or Google will go the same way in the near future.

Businesses have to change, improve, and serve their customers, or else they will follow Comet into insolvency.
Yes, this is true. In the past decade or so we've seen the demise of lots of companies who failed to adapt to recent advances in technology or the changing needs of their customer base. There's no evidence that Facebook is in danger of this right now. Yes, they regularly do things that mildly annoy the users, but so far never enough to cause a mass exodus (they currently have a billion active users, growing at around 2%/month), and anyway the users are not the customers, they're the product they sell to the advertisers who are the real customers.

In the meantime, App.net seems like an interesting alternative to Twitter, with a growing [userbase].
One to watch, certainly, but if they want to take over from Twitter as one of the main social networking sites then they'll have to figure out how to get ordinary people to switch over. I use Twitter because lots of people I know use it, not because I'm impressed by their ethical stance, business model or technical expertise.

If you aren't the one paying, you're the product

I don't object so much to advertising as such, but there comes a point where the user is the product being sold - very much Google's attitude, I think, as well as Twitter's with the recent API crack-downs. I wouldn't mind a banner ad or similar in Twitter, like a lot of websites and mobile apps have, but the "sponsored tweet" concept crosses a line for me.

Most objectionable to me, though, is the otherwise-free site which delivered me a message from a long-lost relative - and demanded £5 to allow me to reply. (No ads that I can see on that particular site, though I did spot an adblocked entity on their sister site indicating they do have some banner ads around as well.)

At the other end of the spectrum, OKCupid has free user accounts with advertising, paid user accounts with various benefits including the absence of ads, and the option of paying a one-off fee to be ad-free without paying for a full premium account. Much more palatable, for every preference.

The "race to the bottom" on Internet access irritates me as well, with ridiculously poor services cutting every corner possible to undercut real ISPs with silly pricing. When I switched ISPs earlier this year, the customer service rep couldn't seem to understand how anything could matter besides the price and claimed download speed. (Reason enough to leave in itself, I would say!)

I still remember the early days of Freeserve, when they were still trying to pretend to be something other than a straight pay-as-you-go ISP charged through the phone bill, answering questions about their business model with evasive waffle about how they'd be making money out of e-commerce. Utter nonsense, of course, but how can you trust a company which lies about the very essence of your relationship with them as a customer?!

Google are just evil

That is a very disappointing comment coming from you Toby, I thought you were more open-minded than that. If you weren't a friend I would be very tempted to retort with some kind of snarky comment but I won't. There is nothing whatsoever to justify such commentary on one of the most open and sharing companies out there.

You're entitled to your opinions of course but such gratuitous and unjustified slander, for I can't find a better word for it, is really uncalled for. I would have rather you said "I don't like Google" and left it at that, but comments like this don't make me angry anymore, they just make me sad, so very sad.

"Evil", of course, is a hyperbolic term to use, but it is an easy term to apply to them because of their laughable early aim to "Don't be evil" (although one should remember that was more about ethical business practices rather than dealing with their users).

Google have a built a massive business on providing services for "free", collecting data about their users, and selling access to those users through various advertising programmes. This is Not Good.

To be a user-centred company, with any sense of customer focus, they need to have an income-stream that is based on the interests of their users-as-customers, rather than on the interests of their advertisers. Otherwise they are no better than Facebook.

I don't think you're understanding Google's business model very well. They are not Facebook, and their success on the stock market proves that.

It's your prerogative to laugh at their "Don't be evil" motto, but I for one truly believe that that is central to their behaviour and is central to how their carry out business. Try to listen to Larry Page arguments regarding his vision for the company, it's a million time more inspiring than any other famous Silicon Valley CEO I've heard.

Of course "business" is a broad term related to bringing in revenue. As it happens, advertising isn't the only way they bring in revenue. The AdWords scheme is profitable yes, but they also have what you may understand better as "proper" customers through the Google Apps scheme, and of course they sell Hardware now too, Chromebooks, Nexus devices and so on.

The way I see it is they make customers of small and large businesses so they can provide free and incredibly useful services to the end-user. The whole "oh noes they have tons of data about me" scare tactics doesn't work with Google. They give you the tools and means to take your data away with you at any time you wish (See links at the bottom) and the data they collect about you is only used to improve your user experience. Please explain to me what is wrong with receiving targeted advertising in my Gmail instead of advertising from the highest bidder as can be seen in most on-street models. The advertising I occasionally see in Gmail (and frankly I can't think of where else their averts show, their model being so unobtrusive, unlike Facebook) is usually of more interest to me than billboards on the bus or on the street.

I frankly don't understand why people think targeted advertising is "not good". If you don't want an account with them, take your data away, delete your account and you're off their system. Unless you buy into the narrow-minded conspiracy point of view that they hold on to your data even if you explicitly delete it.

If the choice is between receiving targeted advertising or non-targeted advertising, then one would want non-targeted advertising. Serving me adverts based on what the web site knows about me is just plain creepy.

Of course, the real preferred option is to have no adverts at all. And yes, I know one can buy Google Apps for Business to bypass adverts in some of the Google products — and I did for a few years — but that is a tiny part of their overall business.

It does not improve the user experience to received targeted adverts. Targeting adverts is good for advertisers, not for users.

I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree here Toby because your arguments make no sense whatsoever. Creepy? Seriously? Their motivation is to improve their user experience and you see it as creepy? They don't have any nefarious plans to ... umm I can't even think what sort of nefarious plans they would even have, my mind doesn't work like that I'm afraid. You just make statements without even trying to provide any sort of explanation on how it's "not good for users" or why it's "creepy", this really confuses me.

And by the way if adverts really bug you, you always have the option to use things like AdBlock or AdBlock Plus which will remove adverts from sight. You make it sound like they're oppressors forcing their adverts down their users' throat, when there is always a choice.

It might be a bit of an exaggeration, but no more so than "most open and sharing" - this is the same Google which told Acer they would be banned from using Android if they also sold handsets using Alibaba's rival open-source OS? The one that keeps the source code to their "open" platform under wraps for as long as possible without getting caught actually violating the GPL?

Indeed, they slap restrictive NDAs on anyone interacting with them. Put AdWords on your site, they forbid you from disclosing how much you've earned! Open? Pull the other one.

Yes, they do donate some disk space and bandwidth to open source projects, as well as sometimes contributing themselves, but tend to be extremely secretive and competition-averse in most areas. How many servers do they have? Where? They have interesting pieces of infrastructure like BigTable and GoogleFS that would have been very useful elsewhere, but kept the code and most of the design firmly under lock and key, more so recently, so open source alternatives had to be written from scratch instead.

You do have a point that advertising doesn't account for *all* their revenue ... it accounts for 96% of it. Every single other activity they have, combined, is background noise by comparison. (One reason I wonder if Microsoft's default activation of do-not-track may have been strategic ... if they start bundling or promoting an ad-blocker plugin too, we'll know for sure!)

I'm sorry your point is?

Okay let's break down your narrow-minded arguments here:

Their slapping down Acer for trying to move to Alyuin OS has been explained by Andy Rubin himself. If you'd rather read the nonsense written in newspapers, it's your prerogative, but have a read at Andy Rubin's response before shooting them down for trying to keep Android and the OHA from becoming fragmented.

"Put Adwords on your site"... I'm sorry what?? If have Google Adverts on my website because I registered with the AdSense scheme, not because Google took over my website and slapped their adverts without my consent like you seem to imply. If by "your site" you mean Google services you use, well it's their services isn't it? As for forbidding you to disclose how much money you've earned (presumably via AdSense since you don't seem to know which service does what), please link to the EUA that says so. Even if that were the case, I fail to see where the problem is.

If you want to see their servers they've recently put them on StreetView, so you can see what it looks like in their datacenters, it's pretty neat. On the other hand why you'd want to know how many servers they have in the first place is beyond me but whatever.

Do-not-track is included in the newest / next version of Chrome. It's disabled by default, but it is / will be there. Again, this is irrelevant when you can use the likes of AdBlock.

As for their revenue, umm, again links please? These days they not only get revenue from AdWords and Google Apps, but there's Google Play revenues to consider as well. Plenty of opportunities to be a "customer" in other words. I'll tell you straight out, I have no idea what proportion each accounts for their revenues and frankly I couldn't care less. The point is, anyone who complains about Google simply has their knickers in a twist and is free to use whatever else they prefer.

And that, will be my last words on it.

Google financial information, showing clearly that advertising accounts for 96% of their revenue.


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