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.
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.