I Don’t Trust Internet Services That I Don’t Pay For

Five years and a week after del.icio.us announced that Yahoo had acquired them, Yahoo has put Delicious out to pasture. John Gruber relates that a source told him that the entire delicious team was fired yesterday, part of a wider series of layoffs at Y!, which we might remember was once #1 in search, etc.

The human story shouldn’t be overlooked: a lot of people have lost their jobs right before the holidays, and that’s awful. The late-year firings are totally driven by a desire to have clean edges on the fiscal year if you’re a Jan-Dec company, but that’s a quite tone-deaf way to do things. I have friends who’ve been laid off here locally of late, and the good companies are giving employees 30-60 days’ notice so they have time to look for a job before they’re just suddenly out on the street. For high-skilled knowledge workers, that seems to be the human thing to do, if for no other reason that they might consider working for you again. I rather doubt that many Yahoos who’ve been laid off in this round or who’ve left previously, whether by choice or force, have any desire to come back and wear a purple Y on their badge.

The human story is important, but as a consumer of Internet services, it does concern me. A lot of people have been migrating from delicious to Pinboard for bookmarking services today; I’d had an account for a while and had recently made the switch. The Pinboard team has a good set of design choices about their service, and that’s why I gave them my money a year or so ago.

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Pinboard started to get buzz in July 2009, not long after it was released to the public. The first MetaFilter story I can find on PInboard has a great comment: “The goal seems to be to recreate and improve on del.icio.us, which is kind of crazy now.”

Except, well, that’s not so funny today, is it?

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I think the Pinboard model is an interesting one, because it provides a bit of revenue on Day One as well as promoting the idea that people should get on board early so they can have an account for the low price. Your users will give you network effects, of course, but my thinking here is that paying for a service, even with a one-time fee, is investing money into it. Plenty of people, myself included, had data invested in delicious, but no money. I invested $6.19 in an account back in March, and $25 later when their archiving system was announced. I will renew that $25 going forward.

When you rely on free services for the Internet, you’re agreeing to be a digital squatter, moving from place to place as the winds blow you around. That’s not altogether a bad thing, because it’s hard to know which services are going to be truly good. That said, when you find a truly good service, you better be paying for it, or it’s likely to die. The price you will then pay is the time you expend getting your data out of the system or the mourning of the loss of that data.

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The expert reader will poke a hole in this by saying, “Dude, you’re using Twitter statuses in this entry. That’s free.” Yes, yes I am. I would love to pay Twitter for the service if it would ensure that the service doesn’t die. I have a lot of time and invested in it, honestly. I haven’t figured out where it would make sense for me to give them the money, but I’m thinking that some power-user features would do it. Specifically, boolean search on statuses I’ve made in the past, including mentions and replies, comes to mind. Twitter is designed to be lightweight and fun, and I think that should be the case for the vast majority of people who use it.

Another option that I see is a Metcalfe Tax on private accounts. That would go over like a lead balloon at this point given that the service is fairly mature and there are a ton of private accounts. I think the only way you can do it is this: old tweets are kept private, and if the user wants to delete their account, you let them. I have a lot of friends with private accounts who would have a tough choice to make about whether or not to keep a Twitter account if they were suddenly forced to pay. The only way I can see making it fair is for extant users to have a very small, one-time fee [< $3] for privacy, but new users have to pay a not-as-small yearly fee for having a private account. Charging even $1 is going to piss people way the hell off, but if you can show that the people coming after you will have it worse, it's not as bad. [It's not good.]Either way, I think Twitter needs to find me a way to give them money. [I have a private account at the moment that sees infrequent use, so this is not a trivial thing for me.] I need something more than time and data invested in them, for all of my concerns above.[blackbirdpie id="15554606822072320"]Here are services that I do pay for:

  • Email hosting by Fastmail. I’m clear about why I use Fastmail, and I’ve used it since July 2006. A couple years ago, I ended up moving to a family account, and now my parents and brother have an email account that they’re guaranteed to have going forward. ((The domain name, morrisfamilyemail.com is ridiculously long, but it’s actually something that can be easily read to someone on the phone, which is way more than I can say for “gfmorris AT gfmorris DOT net”, which is both hard to get people to get right and then always gets me, “Oh, you’re one of them people with your own domains, huh?” Yeah, I am. What’s it to ya?)) There’s a price to it, but it’s worth paying.
  • Flickr, which I’ve used since 2005. I don’t get as much out of Flickr as I perhaps should, but I do get enough out of it. I’ve been a paid Pro user for a few years now, and I will continue to do that even though the feature growth of the service has slowed rapidly since the Yahoo! acquisition. The choices that Yahoo! has mad this week have me worried for Flickr’s long-term viability, even though it is likely revenue-positive. As I tweeted, I think Flickr should be acquired by someone who’s not going to let it wither. Even better, I’d love to see some VCs offer to acquire it while paying Yahoo for the server infrastructure in the short term as they bring a technical team together to support it going forward. There is money to be made with Flickr if there’s a tight, focused, interested team doing it and people that are willing to invest in it.
  • Sirius Satellite Radio. I use it in my car, and I use the data streaming at home. There’s value in it to me, so I pay for it. The data streaming is good for the mostly ESPN Radio listening I do at home, and the car access is great when I am traveling and will want a variety of things to listen to [talk radio, comedy, grunge music, metal] while on a longer trip.
  • Pinboard, as discussed.
  • Last.fm, which I like even though I wonder how it’s going to work going forward in a Pandora/Rdio/etc. future. It’s not like I spend that much in them, but I’ve believed in them since the Audioscrobbler days.
  • Instapaper, which I love and have supported by buying the iOS apps. I do worry about whether that’s generating enough revenue for Marco to have it viable, but I expect that he’ll roll out true power-user features at some point that will be attractive enough for me to invest more into the service.
  • The web server I run. My site hosting is free, but only because I pay for it in time spent installing and upgrading software for users, administering the server, and generally being available when it craps the bed.
  • The domain names I own. When I find that they no longer have any value for me, I sell them if I can’t find them a better home with someone else wishing to take on the project. I’ve let five domains lapse in the last four months, and while each has given me a twinge when doing so, I recognize that it’s impossible for me to carry through with all the ideas I’ve got in my head.
  • Since I brought up email, it’s worth mentioning the Google. Yes, I pay more with Fastmail than I would with the big G, but I’ve gotta say that I don’t want to invest my money and email data with them. I have a Gmail account, but I don’t use it for very much other than getting access to Google services where you have to have an account. UAH’s alumni email network is also Gmail-powered, but I don’t really invest much in it, either; it gets UAH-specific stuff and that’s it.

    Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Facebook. Facebook’s high-school/college/young adult audience isn’t going to pay for accounts. They just aren’t; most don’t have the money, and very few of them have the inclination. Simply put, they’ve not been burned enough by free to know any better. For me, I don’t have enough invested in Facebook to worry about it going under. If/when it does, there will be a vacuum filled by another entrant, and people will flock there. I will as well, because I don’t have much invested in it other than time and data that is almost always available elsewhere. I do not have single points of failure with Facebook. ((None come to mind, anyway.))

    Look, I think that paying for stuff that you use and enjoy is important for two reasons. One, it forces you to consider what is truly important in the services you consume. If it’s free, you will take it for granted. I don’t take my email for granted for free—not in the slightest. [Of all the services listed above, it is the most expensive.] Things that I get for free these days generally aren’t worth caring about or investing in. Two, it will force you to choose a service carefully to find one that fits your needs. If you’re spending money with someone, you’re going to be picky about it, and I think that’s important.

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Trust Internet Services That I Don’t Pay For”

  1. What’s your #2 in the closing paragraph?

    You’ve got an assumption that I don’t think is correct: that paying for a service makes it more likely to stay around. Goodness knows there are enough internet companies littering the landscape where that simply wasn’t true. There’s enough weirdness with VC and angel funding that can make for-free companies outstrip their for-pay competitors.

    These days I’m grooving on freemium models where you get more features if you’re willing to pay for the service. I’ve done this with RememberTheMilk, Evernote, and now LastPass. But the pay or not-pay is not the critical thing. Data portability is. As Jason Scott has pointed out, if you don’t have your data, then it’s not really yours. With any service that you don’t control, you need to make sure you can get your data in and out easily, and use that to keep a backup of it. There are no guarantees with any company, which means you always will be going where the winds blow. The only proof against that is having handles on your data so you can pick it up like a suitcase and carry it with you.

  2. I’ve added the second point in the closing paragraph.

    You do make an excellent point on data portability. Of the services above, the only one where I don’t know for-sure that I can get the data out is Instapaper, and that’s mainly because I haven’t looked.

    Your point about paid services failing is well-taken, but I think a paid service avoids the turn-and-burn mentality of VC and startups just looking to be acquired. Pinboard and Instapaper are perfect examples of that. That said, they are small businesses, and smart businesses can and do fail. That’s where data portability comes in.

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