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. 1 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.2

    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.

    1. 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? 

    2. None come to mind, anyway. 

Why I’m Going to Delete My Facebook Account

I am an extrovert and a person who knows people; ask any of my friends, and they will tell you some wacky story about how I knew someone they knew from way back when. Latest example: the Jeff I sold wontscale.com to used to post on rec.music.christian. So did my friend Jeff. Turns out that they know each other from back then. As I told Amy, “Your Jeff knows my Jeff!” Also, neither of those Jeffs was really Amy’s Jeff.

Enough rambling about how I seemingly know everyone. The point of the matter: I’ve been finding Facebook increasingly unusable. I’m a strong Facebook networker: 1348 friends as of this posting. Facebook used to let me manage this stream well: friends lists were the new hotness this time last year. I categorized pretty much every one of my friends into one of those lists. It wasn’t for the fine-toothed granularity of privacy options I could give each list, although those were nice—after all, you might not want business contacts to have full, unfettered access to your Mom posting things on your Wall. No, it was purely so I could manage my damn Facebook experience.

The failure of the “friend” taxonomy, as countless Internet pundits have pointed out, is that there are varying levels of friend. My mother and brother are both on Facebook; so are random people who think they know me from all the random Internet things I do. I can list both as “friends”, but that appellation doesn’t fit either scenario. Facebook, and social networking in general, have made the term “friend” well nigh meaningless.

As such, I created lists of people by how I knew them. I then had a handful of lists that cut across those classifications. I’ll admit to two: what I termed “Essential Peeps” and “The Ladies”. I wanted to see updates from people on those two lists for obvious reasons. “Essential Peeps” was the default list, and “The Ladies” was right below this.

Facebook nuked this a couple of months ago with their current iteration of their homepage, which de-emphasized friends lists for a lifestream. Their reasons for doing so have never been clearly stated, but I can think of two strong ones:

  1. Designing the home page around the average Facebook user, who has 80-150 friends, best serves the needs of the largest number of users with the smallest number of engineering resources. This is an optimization decision, and I’m an engineer and understand that.
  2. By focusing their home page as a lifestream, they seek to make their site a destination, rather than a jumping-off point.

The push towards Open Graph makes a lot of sense in terms of breaking down the walled garden, honestly. Dare Obasanjo wrote about Open Graph from a Web developer’s perspective, and it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve read about OG.

There are more examples in Hugh’s post but you get the idea. Social objects had been represented by “fan pages” in the Facebook world but with the Open Graph Protocol, it is now possible for any random website to become a part of Facebook’s social graph. This is a very powerful and liberating concept both from the perspective of what it enables Facebook’s platform to do but also because it gets rid of some ugly forms of lock-in. For example, Robert Scoble would no longer need to maintain a brand presence on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/scobleizer that is different from his website at http://www.scobleizer.com to stay connected with fans of his blog who are Facebook users.

See, that’s a net positive for the Web. Surely you’ve seen TV and radio advertisements that urge you to look them up on Facebook. Isn’t that stupid? It’s buying and setting up AOL keywords all over again! Facebook sees this, and wants to tear down the walls of its garden. I actually applaud that.

I do not like how they are tearing the walls down. The privacy implications of what they’re doing are painfully bad; instead of opting-in to things like Open Graph, you have to opt out of them if you’re concerned about privacy. Sure, that rapidly increases the installed userbase for Open Graph, but it also throws their audience out into the wider Web without much notice.

The failing of Open Graph is, in my mind, the opted-in-by-default nature. Facebook is ignoring its very zeitgeist, which is that things spread virally. On Facebook, it’s a quasi-meritocracy: if it adds value to users, they’ll tell their friends about it. Users don’t think about things like “value adds”, though; they think about things being funny or cool or worth ridiculing. Instead, mother Facebook is saying, “Here. You want this. Now open wide and take your medicine!”

Fuck that noise.

Dan Yoder recently wrote a list of 10 Reasons to Delete Your Facebook Account. While blog lists, especially of ten items, should themselves be deleted, Yoder makes some good points. Points 10, 8, and 7 are the keys for me. [Point 9? Ad hominem.] I own my content, not you. You just help me share it with people. I add value to you by sharing content through your pipes, which keeps viewers on your site so you can sell more ads and make money. As seen above, I don’t think that the default is social; I think the default is viral, and you should seek out connectors to make the argument to your users as to why they should make things social. And, well, bait-and-switch sucks.

My reason for deleting Facebook is pretty clear to me: I am the kind of networking user that they need, but they refuse to give me the tools to help me manage my network, which allows me to grow the network for them. I’m the kind of user who will deeply connect people and bring them into understandable groups, which is the key for selling ads. I’m the kind of user who would urge users towards Open Graph. Despite all that, Facebook is telling me with their design choices and operating methodologies that they don’t need me.

Fine. I don’t need them, either. My Facebook account will be deleted 15 May 2010. I’m not doing it right away because I want people to know that I’m disappearing before I just do so.

If you want to keep up with me, I’m ridiculously easy to find on the Internet. Y’all know my name is weird. It used to bother me, but now it makes me easy to find. And hey, if you want it, here’s my cell phone number: 256-527-8152. I have no compunction putting that on the Internet: at least two or three thousand people have it already, and I’ve had the same number for years. I screen calls, so hey. Also, I love email.

Bye, Facebook. It’s been fun.

20 Dec 2010 Addendum:

I ended up resurrecting my Facebook account a couple weeks later when I left my previous job. Enough co-workers guilted me into keeping up with it. I’ve de-emphasized Facebook in large part, but I have kept up with it.

Tonight, I found that they completely obscured the Friends Lists from the user interface. No more can you click Friends in the sidebar and then access the lists you’ve created. You can still add people to lists—I added a Facebook friend just today, and I was able to add her to a list—but said list now has zero value to me.

The Groups feature is an obvious attempt to do public groupings of users, which certainly has a high value in terms of network analysis. That said, Facebook groups are a privacy nightmare. The comparison is being made to Twitter’s lists, but I think that misses a point: you can have both public and private Twitter lists. I have both, and I use private ones to sort the large mass of people I follow to smaller streams of data. Those lists are “a-list”, “b-list”, and “c-list”. Of course, not everyone is in one of those private lists, and some people are in both public and private lists. 1

In putting friends lists out to pasture, they’ve made Facebook far, far less useful to me. I’m quite inclined to nuke it, again. I won’t, but damn if I don’t want to bail.

  1. You, of course, are on the a-list. You know this. It’s our little secret. 

Facebook, Open Graph, User-Generated Content, and Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Flickr’s Kellan-Elliott McCrea has a number of interesting thoughts about Facebook’s new Open Graph technology set, which seeks to make the Web even more social [as if it weren’t already, I guess]. One of them that struck me most is about identity:

Thinking about the various attempts to claim ownership of websites over the years, I think the last one that I implemented was Technorati’s and for the fiddliness of placing a badge on my site, I never got much value.

As someone’s who thinks about the role of identity on the Internet, it’s interesting to see these strong identity claims. As a pragmatist it looks like most web pages will be claimed by organizations not individuals. And as a developer on the “Open Web”, I can’t help but compare and contrast this approach versus approaches like Web Finger and the Social Graph API.

As a publisher it’s mildly interesting right now, a non-intrusive vanity plate that acts as hook into a well thought out API. This changes when the promised “coming soon” update to streams.publish lands, giving me access to the stream of anyone who has a relationship with the objects I own. Changes a lot.

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to this identity thing on the Internet. I loved the concept of XFN when it first came out, but man, that was almost seven years ago. I bet even Matt Mullenweg has forgotten about it.

My raggedly-made point is that there is nothing truly new here. Facebook struggles with openness while being a semi-walled garden. Of course, we should all see the profit motive behind this for Facebook: by allowing users to draw the Web into Facebook, they keep users on the site more, learn more about their personalities, and can monetize that through ads. If that makes you a bit queasy, well, it does me, too. But it’s nice work if you can get it.

A Minor Criticism of Facebook’s “People You May Know”

Dear Facebook:

The People You May Know thing? Awesome. Leverage the power of network theory to show you people that you’re likely to know. Here’s the problem: I know that I don’t know a lot of these people. [And some of these people, I know who they are, but we’re not friends in any sort of way, so … why do I want to be continually presented with them?] Please, please, please let me say, “Hey, I know I don’t know who that person is,” and “I know who they are, but we’re not friends”. There is value in the negative as well as the positive.

I get false positives for two reasons:

  1. A lot of the Square Pegs are now on FB, so fans of many of them show up as positives for me on PYMK. More frustratingly to me, folks who are familiar with the SPA and my work with them then end up friending me. I have a very simple rule: if I have to ask “who?” when I see a FB friend request, I ignore it. And I still have 621 FB friends as of this posting.
  2. I know a bunch of current and just-graduated students at UAH, and FB is presuming that I know current students. I know very few current students outside the folks I sit with at hockey games, or actual hockey players. But then FB presumes that I know these UAH Greeks that were in elementary school when I was a freshman, to say nothing of the puck bunnies. I … don’t know those folks, and I generally don’t care to know them. I’ve pretty much friended all the current students I know at this point in my life.

This seems like a terribly obvious thing, but they haven’t implemented it yet.