Stop Crying About Free Services

I wasn’t planning on writing about the Instagram-Facebook merger, but all of the posts about people quitting or asking how to get your data out of Instagram or posting the usual run of “Facebook is evil” just got to me.

Despite their reputations, I continue to use services provided by companies like Facebook and Google (and I will continue to use Instagram). I do this knowing that if there isn’t a product they are selling me, then I must be the product. Why do I do this? Two reasons: 1) I find the value of the services to be worth the risks and 2) I have a fool-proof solution for online security (more on this in a second).

People like Zuckerberg and Page aren’t (that) evil. They run companies, big ones. And big companies exist for one reason: profitability. Sure they could have charged us upfront, but let’s be honest, had Facebook charged every user $5, social networks wouldn’t be where they are today. Had Google chosen to charge an annual subscription rate, search would not be as prevalent in all of our lives. We adopted these technologies because they were free; we embraced them because they were free. And free will always come at a cost. So please stop feigning outrage every time one of these useful services finds a way to continue to exist.

When it comes to Instagram, users already had a viable and established paid option in Hipstamatic. It was mostly ignored. We were either too cheap or enjoyed the social network aspects of Instagram enough to choose the free option. And like many free digital services, when you sign up you are intrinsically agreeing to one of two things: 1) they will sell you shit or 2) they will sell your shit.

Have companies like Google and Facebook made bad decisions on behalf of the users and in favor of their profitability? Absolutely. But it’s often just as likely that they are struggling just as hard as we are to figure out where the line between our privacy and their profitability lives. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they are downright evil, but just as often they’re likely testing the same boundaries as we are.

So about that fool-proof system for online security… There is only one true privacy setting when it comes to social networks and cloud-based services, and that is your own common sense. It’s determining what your comfortable putting online, knowing full well that it could be compromised or misused, and never crossing that line. It’s not a matter of trying to guess which startups are or aren’t going to let you down and then abandoning them when they inevitably do. It’s assuming they will disappoint and acting accordingly.

If Facebook buying Instagram pissed you off, I have a suggestion. Don’t just stop using Instagram, stop using free social networks and services period. Stop using sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare or Pinterest, because it is a given that they will all inevitably let you down in favor of the bottom line1. More often than not, when you actually quit a service, it’s not because they were evil. It’s just because they either became useless or boring. The reality is that you’re not going to stop using services that are useful to you2. You’re just going to waste time switching from one company to the next until your latest service inevitably falls short or sells out.


  1. And on a related side note, stop using another free service like Twitter to bitch about a different free service. You not only sound ridiculous, but what are you going to use to bitch when Twitter inevitably lets you down?  

  2. Unless you’re Vardy :)  

44 Responses to Stop Crying About Free Services

  1. I don’t disagree with you entirely. Just kinduv. A few things.

    1) Instagram has turned down monetization opportunities before. Remember how shitty the first 8 filters were? And then in three months, they came out with 6 new ones? Totally could’ve sold those as 3-packs for $1 and made shit-tons. Seriously. Metric shit-tons of cash. You know how they have options for having advertising appear in their picture splash page. Hell, even ads from The Deck would’ve raked in money. They still turned it down. I don’t think this was a acquisition. I think it was a hostile takeover that they couldn’t turn down. It’s being reported that Kevin and Mike (Mike, right?) are taking home close to $500 MILLION between the two of them.

    2) What worries me about this is not that these companies are evil. Just stupid. Selling our data is a temporary solution to a bigger problem of the internet paying for itself. And it’s a shitty solution. Making that solution a little sexier by adding filters to it doesn’t help. We’re still having one billion goddamned dollars being spent on a service that hasn’t made a cent. 

    3) Speaking of bullshit market caps, Facebook worth $100 Billion? Really? Apple just passed $600 billion in market cap. And they are posting some of the most profitable quarters in the history of the planet. Facebook just spent a billion dollars on some filters. Projected advertising profits from last year? Closer to 950 million than 1 billion.

    4) I’ve always loved bubble wrap, but this is ridiculous.

    So I’m not sure if I actually ended up disagreeing with you or not. Apparently just had to get my own rant out. And at the end of the day, it could be worse. Like Gruber said, at least they didn’t buy Twitter.

    • Ok… so…

      1) They could have easily tested that assumption on a single filter. They didn’t. They were holding off for a bigger payday. Hipstamatic has had paid lenses (on top of being a paid app) as has Camera+ (also a paid app) and Path (a free app). This possibility was clearly not lost on them and was likely intentionally overlooked. A takeover isn’t hostile when you leave the door unguarded :) At least services like Twitter try to monetize. Instagram just wanted more eyeballs. And what exactly do you think they wanted them for?

      2) I don’t think they’re stupid, I think they’re in uncharted territory. That said, if you don’t even try to make money, acquisition is your only way to make it. Couldn’t agree more that the service is not worth the cost of acquisition, but they do have one thing FB lacks (or they had one thing FB lacks) likability or even loveability. I may be dead wrong here, but I bet they keep Instagram separate (or at least somewhat separate) kind of like a Zappos/Amazon thing. FB has a lot to learn from IG.

      3) So you’re sort of talking about of both sides of your mouth here… not being a jerk (well, I’m being a jerk for fun :) ). If you’re right that selling our data is a temporary solution (and if it’s a temporary one, it’s been a long standing temporary one going all the way back to Google), then companies like FB are going to have to help lead that charge. There’s no doubt that these kinds of market caps are questionable, but at the same time, you can’t tell me you believe there is a better way and that FB isn’t one of the companies that should be proving you right :)

      4) Pop.

      Definitely not as much disagreement as I was expecting. Rant on brother.

  2. Give me a social network I can pay for and the problems are solved, there is no advertising, the cheap bastards won’t sign up and everybody will be happy.

    • I think us diehards would agree, but it would never take off. Ever read Chris Anderson’s Free? The difference in the adoption curve for something that costs pennies is staggering. People will always choose free and then choose to pretend as if they were totally unaware of the cost.

  3. Hahaahaha. Absolutely. Thanks to @DannyBrown:disqus  for providing this link over at my house today where I cover off on this issue BEFORE I let others’ opinions sway me. I essentially said the same thing, just not accusing everyone of being whiners, ahem, Big Daddy. 

    That said, spot on! And, LIKE, and all that jazz.

  4. I always enjoy listening to people cry about what they get for free. “Sign my petition to force FB to do things differently because it is not fair.”

    You have a choice to use it or not use it.

    • I don’t always see it as a bad thing. Righteous indignation has gotten some terrible decisions reversed (or at least pushed off), it’s wasting time on the other varieties of indignation that drive me nuts.

  5. I am surprised to hear people complaining about it at all. If some people are pissed off about privacy online here is a simple solution: Stop sharing your personal information online in the first place. We all knowingly do this and when we feel threatened we start shouting loud and remove ourselves from the situation. For every person that removes them self from Instagram, there is another willing to sign up to see what all the hoopla is about anyway.

    You either love Social Media or you don’t. You can’t have one without the other and believe me they will sell your sh– whether we like it or not. How else would they stay in business? There is price we pay when we post our personal lives online, they key is only sharing what you don’t mind people knowing; otherwise keep it off the internet. Nice post!

    • Yeah the problem with your simplistic solution is that the social networks lie and change their policies all the time in order to deceive users.  Until they are clear about such things people have no business trusting them.

    • I’m with you. The app is flying up the charts on the app store for a reason (it’s #1 in the app store as of the moment). $5 says they announce a nice bump in users in the very near future. The paid competitor, Hipstagram is coming in at a respectable #53, but if people really felt that strongly, they would be putting their money where their mouth is and Hipsta would be seeing quite a bump this week (although #53 on the paid app charge is likely quite a bump for them). But still one look at the App store today and you see the not the argument, but fairly conclusive proof of the power of free vs. paid argument. 

  6. Yeah your wrong Mikey.  I quit Facebook and quite a few Google services and know others who have done the same.  Saying people are “crying” about it is childish and stupid. Its not a one way street.  The companies make money from peoples personal information while lying about it.   Just because you feel the need to roll over for professional liars like Zuckerburg doesn’t mean the rest of us feel the same. So you know…grow up.

    • And giving your personal information over to a company freely while paying them no money and then screaming bloody murder when they inevitably decide to capitalize on all the crap you gave them is what? Sensible and mature?

      These companies make money from our personal information. The lying about it part is just the bullshit we tell ourselves when they go too far.I knew what I was doing when I signed up. I understood the risks, I found the potential downside to be significantly less than the benefit I got from those services. I benefit, they profit. They will inevitably make horrible decisions and then I decide if the risk is still worth the reward. The handful who have quit Google and Facebook aren’t changing a damn thing. It’s only been when the active user base lashes out that things actually change for the better. You want pat yourself on the back for quitting Facebook and Google, go right ahead (hell I did it when I quit G+), but lets not pretend like it changes anything other than how we spend our own time.

  7. Definitely a good rant. One thing though. If service is paid for it still doesn’t guarantee that users/consumers will be treated fairly and honestly. There are plenty of examples where profit is everything regardless of cost and impact to people, environment etc. 

    • Oh, there’s no doubt that a paid business is likely to step out of line, but I would argue (just for fun) that their need to do so is less if they’ve come up with a viable business model. Although, perhaps it has more to do with the ambition of the entrepreneur than it is the business model…

  8. I agree with you @MSchechter:disqus I joined then quit Instagram after the merger because I find Facebook unethical in their business practices and any brands I feel that way about I refuse to patronize free or otherwise (my choice). Yes plenty brands i do patronize probably do shady things (like Apple’s slave worker factories….well anyone who manufactures in asia probably has dubious worker conditions). But unless they are exposed I am clueless.

    But we can talk business models. We pay a lot for cell phone service and data plans. And cable TV. And I view facebook as a communications platform service. Back in 2010 I felt (and blogged) they could of gotten 200m or their 400m users to pay $3/month (I would of) and forgone their advertising/marketing model. It would of given them $7.2bil in revenues way more than now and made them a fortune 500 company. They could of reinvested in the user experience vs the brand/exploitation experience they chose.

    http://marketing-sensei.blogspot.com/2010/05/facebooks-crappy-business-model.html

    I had an email exchange with Fred Wilson about this and he felt Ad model was the only way to go. I still disagree but it is too late for facebook. Maybe the next service that comes out will be so slick we will pay and they will be much the richer for it and us much happier. Notice none of us bitch about the $100 for the IPhone or Droid monthly service but we bitch about free Facebook.

    • It’s an interesting point about cable and cell (although I don’t know if it is completely apt), but I think you are significantly overestimating how much of the user base would have thrown down their credit card. People already feel that they are paying for things like Facebook by paying for their access to the internet. I don’t pay ABC, NBC, Bravo. I pay for Time Warner Cable. Facebook is akin to a channel and a channel makes their money by advertising (and deals with the providers, but lets be reductive for the sake of keeping things simple). Using your logic, social media should have been framed as something like HBO, a premium on top of an already paid service. This would have had to have been the plan from day one. You can’t easily start charging for what was once free. Once you set your bottom price, you’re stuck with it. The only time we’ve ever paid for a “social network” directly was with services like AOL and even then, the network was an added benefit to the connectivity.

      •  I guess my take (and I agree with your view) is if there is a great communication service we will pay for it. We did with pagers now it is a pay for service as SMS text on phones. And I feel facebook could of grown into such a service that we had to have vs use because we don’t have a viable option yet. But we will. I have never ever seen a Video Gamer say ‘Damn I have so many of the last generation Playstation games I am not tossing them all for the new XBox and starting over with 1 game’. So one day we will not be using facebook and my guess it will be sooner than later (AOL peaked pretty fast)

        And if it is that good I think we will pay. We do pay for plenty of things online that are fee based for use. But yes often the access is how we view our payment. And part of that access is direct payment thus the cable channel wars.

        • Name me one thing people hate more about their phone company than SMS charges :) (unless we’re talking AT&T and then it’s just our general lack of… you know… service.).

          There’s only so many tiers deep I can pay on things. It’s often device and access (or when it comes to video games, console and game or in the case of the iPhone it’s device and app). There are premiums that can be up sold (e.g. in app/game purchases or premium channels), but the more you pay for the access, the less you want to pay the premiums (unless it’s amazing like HBO). I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the masses will pay for social media, I’m just suggesting that at this point it’s improbable. I also not so sure on FB, I don’t see them going anywhere. We are way more fed up than the average customer.

          And don’t forget. Video game systems evolve, but they also make sure your old games work on them. As long as you stay brand loyal, you aren’t really starting over.

  9. Absolutely brilliant, Michael.

    I whole-heartedly agree.

    And I’d also recommend anyone who’s interested in this topic read Napoleon Hill’s “Selling You”, because every communication everyone makes everywhere is “selling”.

    :)

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