Out with the old, in with the new. One of the “old” ways of thinking that finally kicked the bucket in 2011? That users could get a free ride on Web services with no catch. As Robert Heinlein famously said, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL). This realization isn’t new for some, but the realization should finally be kicking in for mainstream users as well.

The combination of Google’s housecleaning spree, relentless Facebook redesigns and privacy gaffes, and popular services being bought, being ruined or just going dark, users should be getting the hint: The free ride is over and the bill is due.

Don’t Be a Free User

Services and software that has no revenue model at all makes me nervous as a user. The problem isn’t unique to Web services. I’ve watched well-supported FOSS projects grow and prosper (Firefox, Linux, Hadoop, Apache, etc.) while hobby projects that I’ve taken a liking to eventually sputter and fail because the lead (usually only) developer or developers couldn’t swing development in addition to a full-time job.

For mature, well-supported and innovative services, you need money. What’s more, you need a direct correlation between satisfied users and income. Ad revenue doesn’t cut it.

I particularly liked the post by Maciej Ceglowski on the Pinboard blog asking users to join “the anti-free-software movement.” The idea? “If every additional user is putting money in the developers’ pockets, then you’re less likely to see the site disappear overnight.”

Ah, but what about sites that don’t have a business model or don’t provide paid accounts? Ceglowski says “Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening.”

I also like the Minimal Mac idea of just mailing money to a service to force services to allow users to pay directly.

Years ago, I was an enthusiastic user of Delicious (back when it was “del.icio.us”). If the developers had asked for a monthly or yearly fee, I’d have happily paid up. Instead, it went over to Yahoo and … well, very little happened. Despite all the noises Yahoo emitted after the announcement, very little actually happened with Delicious and eventually, Yahoo decided they really didn’t want it so badly after all.

As our own Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote on the relaunch under new management, “the best parts of the old site have been lost… maybe we should all just go grunt and Like things on Facebook after all.”

You’re the Product

Marshall was being facetious, of course. Facebook is the last site that users can depend on. Facebook has only one consistent feature that its customers can depend on, and that’s its users.

Oh, wait. You didn’t really think that you were Facebook’s customer base, right? When it comes to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr and others you’re the product.

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” (TANSTAAFL) ~ Robert Heinlein from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Over on Facebook’s “about” page for advertising the company says “the people who built Facebook wanted it to be free for everyone. It now costs over a billion dollars a year to run Facebook, and delivering ads is how Facebook pays for this.” That billion dollars a year isn't coming from its users.

Facebook doesn’t exist to connect its users to one another, Facebook exists to connect users with advertisers. You’re not getting a free ride on Facebook, you’re paying for it by seeing a barrage of targeted ads. You’re paying for it by letting Facebook mine your personal information to sell data to marketers. Update: Facebook has contacted me to note that it does not sell data directly to marketers. Facebook does provide some aggregated data to marketers, but not individualized data. Apologies for the error.

That may be OK, it’s certainly not a new concept. You don’t get TV shows for free, or radio programs or much else. The big difference between Web services like Facebook and other ad-supported media is that you’re making an investment in Web services that’s hard to move to another service.

I’m not the first person to make that observation, but this seems to be the year that users are finally starting to realize it en masse. Even my friends outside of the tech industry have started to remark on frustrations with Facebook, and taken note of why they have no control.

Taking Action

Realizing and acting are two different things, of course. One of the final straws, for me, was the gmail redesign this Fall. I switched to Gmail years ago because it was so much easier than managing my own mail server. Not to mention, the Webmail interface was better and more convenient than Thunderbird or Mutt.

Little by little, Gmail is less appealing to me. So I’ve resolved to make the switch in 2012 to hosting my own mail and setting up my own Webmail. And I’ll continue looking for and supporting services that I find useful, like Dropbox, Evernote and Instapaper. All of which I pay for now. If a service doesn’t have a way for me to support it directly, and isn’t depending on my support, I’m going to be very wary of depending on it. I’d recommend you do the same.