App.net and the Free Problem

Have you heard of App.net? If not, check it out. The basic premise is to create a social media platform that is aligned with users’ interest. And so, gasp, it costs money! The CEO, Dalton Caldwell, has a neat video explaining the inception of the project and the philosophy of the venture. Critics have said Caldwell’s proposal is misunderstood, and that users are projecting their own ideals onto the platform. They have said that there are too many men on App.net. They have said that it’s just another gated community, and segmenting away users is a bad thing.

I joined and still think it is a good idea to join, based upon arguments started in a series of posts concerning Chris Anderson’s book, “Free.”

There are two reasons to avoid free products and start paying for things. First, free is a force for mediocrity, both online and off. It displaces better products, because no one can compete with free things, and because free things are usually just good enough to do the job we need them to do.

Second, as Jan Whittington and I explain in our work on social network services that are advertised as free, “free” services have costs. A sample of food at a mall’s food court is free to the recipient. You get it and walk away. Online services are different, because you do not walk away whole. The service keeps personal information about you and you forever have to monitor how it deals with that data. In our first paper, we describe the depredations of C Everett Koop’s dr.koop.com, a free social network for medical issues. Drkoop.com went bankrupt, and its member database was sold to a Florida-based “nutritional supplement” company. The best part of the story was the reaction of the buyer. He said, “Three years ago, Drkoop.com would not have given us the time of day…Now we own them.” Shifting policies represent a monitoring cost, a real investment of your time and a risk to your privacy.

At the end of the day, services like Facebook and Twitter must adhere to what advertisers want, and so paeans to “making the world more open” and real identity requirements are masks for serving advertisers’ wishes. If we want to escape that trap, we’re going to have to actually start paying for things with money.

Comments

  1. #1 lukas
    August 17, 2012

    So there is privacy competition after all.

  2. #2 Joshua
    August 17, 2012

    Yeah, nothing bad about building digital sundown towns (or at least gated communities, which in practice end up not being that much different) at all.

    • #3 Chris Hoofnagle
      August 18, 2012

      Users flock to gated communities–Facebook is the ultimate gated community, which had great success because it wasn’t the all-access Myspace.

  3. #4 Kagehi
    August 18, 2012

    What, and “you need to buy this” isn’t a source of mediocrity? I will see you any free product and raise you an operating system, which still sucks, despite all the improvements made **because** it had to compete with “free”. No, the reason “free” is often mediocre comes down to three things:

    1. Lack of skill.
    2. Lack of programmers.
    3. Lack of interest.

    The reason “buy it” produces crap is:

    1. Lack of desire to produce a better product..
    2. Lack of competition.
    3. An inevitable overemphasis on profits, as apposed to user satisfaction.

    Both suffer from what might be best described as, “At this point, the problem is so deeply imbedded in our product that we would have to sink the ship, to fix it. I.e., virtually start over. And, almost no one in software, even with web services, is willing to hose a working, if poor, system, in order to totally replace the entire thing. It might turn out that you put in “huge” messes of time and money, and ended up with something that doesn’t work as well as what you started with, or does work better, but your users reject as being too different.

    No, you get mediocrity whether its free or not, and for all sorts of reasons. What should win is what works best, and… well, the problem, with community systems, is that the ones that you pay to be in, eventually fall short, lose people, and disappear, hence why Google Groups still exists, but AOL doesn’t.