Tag Archives: ello

The Increasing Price We Pay For The Free Internet

The Price of Freedom is Visible HerePicture : Rhadaway.

This is a follow-up on my previous post, A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers. A key point in that post was that we need to be customers, not commodities.  In the cases of Facebook, Google and the vast majority of free web resources, the business model is to provide a content platform for the public and fund the business via advertising.  In this model, simply, our content is the commodity.  The customer is the advertiser.  And the driving decisions regarding product features relate more to how many advertisers they can bring on and retain than how they can meet the public’s wants and needs.

It’s a delicate balance.  They need to make it compelling for us to participate and provide the members and content that the advertisers can mine and market.  But since we aren’t the ones signing the checks, they aren’t accountable to us, and, as we’ve seen with Facebook, ethical considerations about how they use our data are often afterthoughts.  We’ve seen it over and over, and again this week when they backed off on a real names policy that many of their users considered threatening to their well-being.  One can’t help but wonder, given the timing of their statement, how much new competitor Ello’s surge in popularity had to do with the retraction. After all, this is where a lot of the people who were offended by the real names policy went.  And they don’t want to lose users, or all of their advertisers will start working on Ello to make the Facebook deal.

Free Software is at the Heart of the Internet

Freeware has been around since the ’80’s, much of it available via Bulletin Boards and online services like CompuServe and AOL. It’s important to make some distinctions here.  There are several variants of freeware, and it’s really only the most recent addition that’s contributing to this ethically-challenged business model:

  • Freeware is software that someone creates and gives away, with no license restrictions or expectation of payment. The only business model that this supports is when the author has other products that they sell, and the freeware applications act as loss leaders to introduce their paid products.
  • Donationware is much like Freeware, but the author requests a donation. Donationware authors don’t get rich from it, but they’re usually just capitalizing on a hobby.
  • Freemium is software that you can download for free and use, but the feature set is limited unless you purchase a license.
  • Open Source is software that is free to download and use, as well as modify to better meet your needs. It is subject to a license that mostly insures that, if you modify the code, you will share your modifications freely. The business model is usually based on providing  training and support for the applications.
  • Adware is free or inexpensive software that comes with advertising.  The author makes money by charging the advertisers, not the users, necessarily.

Much of the Internet runs on open source: Linux, Apache, OpenSSL, etc. Early adopters (like me) were lured by the free software. In 1989, I was paying $20 an hour to download Novell networking utilities from Compuserve when I learned that I could get a command line internet account for $20 a month and download them from Novell’s FTP site. And, once I had that account, I found lots more software to download in addition to those networking drivers.

Adware Ascendant

Adware is now the prevalent option for free software and web-based services, and it’s certainly the model for 99% of the social media sites out there.  The expectation that software, web-based and otherwise, will be free originated with the freeware, open source and donationware authors. But the companies built on adware are not motivated by showing off what they’ve made or supporting a community.  Any company funded by venture capital is planning on making money off of their product.  Amazon taught the business community that this can be a long game, and there might be a long wait for a payoff, but the payoff is the goal.

Ello Doesn’t Stand A Chance

So Ello comes along and makes the same points that I’m making. Their revenue plan is to go to a freemium model, where basic social networking is free, but some features will cost money, presumably business features and, maybe, mobile apps. The problem is that the pricing has to be reasonable and, to many, any price is unreasonable, because they like being subsidized by the ad revenue. The expectation is that social media networks are free.  For a social network to replace something as established as Facebook, they will need to offer incentives, not disincentives, and, sadly, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t going to leave unless they are severely inconvenienced by Facebook, regardless of how superior or more ethical the competition is.

So I don’t know where this is going to take us, but I’m tired of getting things for free.  I think we should simply outlaw Adware and return to the simple capitalist economy that our founders conceived of : the one where people pay each other money for products and services. Exchanging dollars for goods is one abstraction layer away from bartering. It’s not as complex and creepy as funding your business by selling the personal information about your users to third parties.  On the Internet, freedom’s just another word for something else to lose.

A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 8.20.31 PMFor a website that hosts so many cute pet videos, Facebook is not a place that reeks of happiness and sincerity. It’s populated by a good chunk of the world, and it’s filled with a lot of meaningful moments captured in text, camera and video by people who know that, more and more every day, this is where you can share these moments with a broad segment of your friends and family. And that’s the entire hook of Facebook — it’s where everybgoogleplusody is.  The feature set is not the hook, because Google Plus and a variety of other platforms offer similar feature sets. And many of those competitors, including Google’s offering, are more sensitive to the privacy concerns of their users and less invasive about how they share your data with advertisers.

Many of my professional acquaintances are on both Facebook and Google Plus. But they comprise only about a third of my Facebook friends. So I check Facebook most every day.  I go to Google Plus on rare occasion.

Facebook has a well-known history of overstepping.  From the numerous poorly thought out schemes to court advertisers by letting them tell the world what lingerie we’re buying to use our photos in sidebar advertising, to the constant updating of security settings that seems to always result in less security, it’s clear to most of us that Facebook is trying to please it’s advertisers primarily, and we are more the commodity that they broker than the clientele that they serve.

A few years ago, some people who valued Facebook but were fed up with these concerns developed Diaspora, the anti-Facebook — a network that is built on open source software; distributed, and highly respectful of our right to own and control our content. Diaspora does this by storing the data in “podEllos“, which are individual data stores hosted by users.  You can join a friend or neighbor’s pod, or start your own.  The pods, which work a lot like peer-to-peer apps like BitTorrent, communicate with each other, but the people who run Diaspora do not control that data.  You can blow away your Pod from your file manager or command line if you care to, and nobody is going to stop you. If these networks were fictional, Facebook would have been created by Andy Warhol and Diaspora by Ursula LeGuin.

And this week’s big news is Ello, which, like Diaspora, has defined itself in relationship to Facebook as the user-focused alternative.  Ello is, at present, a rough beta network that shows glimmers of elegance.  Their manifesto is poetry to BoingBoing readers like me:

“Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.”

But let’s be clear about Ello. It’s centralized, like Facebook; not distributed, like Diaspora.  It was built with about half a mil of venture capital funding. It will need to make money at some point in order to return on that investment.  As we watch Twitter get more and more commercialized, we know that this is a story just waiting to happen.

So, what am I saying?  That we should skip Ello and proceed to Diaspora?  Sadly, no.  While Diaspora has the model that I believe is viable to sustain a non-commercial, user-focused network, Grandma isn’t going to host her own server pod.  Peer-to-peer technology is not ready for prime time yet.  So I don’t see a Facebook killer here, or there, or anywhere in sight.  I see people who understand that the crass pimping of our personal lives that Mark Zuckerberg calls a business model is problematic and worthy of replacing.  We can’t replace it with something too geeky for the masses, nor can we replace it with a clone that kinda hopes that it will have a better business model (but likely will only have a less abrasive version, much like Google Plus).

I have a lot of high hopes lately.

I hope that we can curtail this trend of training our local police to be paramilitary units and champion nationwide community policing, as a community controls and reduces crime, while a military goes to war.

I hope that we can reverse the damage that was done when TV News programs became subject to Neilsen ratings.  I consider that to have been a dark day for our society. It was the hard turn that steered us to a place where news is available for whatever biased lens that you want to view it through.

And I hope that somebody will develop a Facebook competitor with a viable business model and a compelling feature set that will yank all of my friends and family out of their complacent acceptance of Facebook’s trade-offs. In this digital era, this is insanely important. We commune online; we share our most treasured moments. We sway each other’s attitudes on important matters.  The platform has to be agnostic, and it has to be devoted to our goals, not those of a third party, such as advertisers.  We have enough problems with societal institutions that have a stated purpose, but answer to people with different aims.

These are all realistic dreams.  But they seem pretty far away.