There are free services and free services

Tech Life

In the intense debate following Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, one piece I’ve seen a few pundits link to is Stop Crying About Free Services by Michael Schechter, and the following bit in particular:

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 line. 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 you. You’re just going to waste time switching from one company to the next until your latest service inevitably falls short or sells out.

I’ve seen this bit quoted without commentary, which implies full agreement. Well, I don’t agree with Schechter. I know this piece of ‘advice’ is meant to be provocative, but I find it to be a little too generalising for my tastes.

For starters: Facebook buying Instagram pissed me off mightily, but not because of the fact that Instagram decided to sell. It’s not the acquisition in itself that annoys me, it’s because the buyer is Facebook. Those who know me well know that I’ve been anti-Facebook since day one, and know that I don’t like the increasing power the company is gaining in the social network landscape. That I despise Facebook’s methods, its concepts of ‘social network’, the way it treats its users, and so on and so forth. If Instagram had been acquired by anyone else, I wouldn’t have cared at all. But the fact that it was Facebook, yes, it pisses me off. Especially because, like Om Malik, I too think that

Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.

Back to Schechter’s piece, the gross generalisation, to me, is suggesting that we should “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 line.” These free social networks and services all have different histories and backgrounds, and may very well have different futures. In other words, they might give me a bitter taste in my mouth at a certain point, but it really depends on how the change, if any, is carried out. Will these other free social network and services be acquired by another giant company whose sole interest is to buy and destroy them? Will the change involve asking users to pay? Will the change involve more intrusive ads or a complete redesign of the user experience? There are changes I can live with, and there are deal-breakers.

I know I’m probably in the minority here, but I have my code of conduct, and I still act on principle. Despite what Schechter may think, I can and will stop using services that are useful to me if their way of changing becomes what I consider a deal-breaker. I’m not a slave of convenience. All these free social networks and services, in the end, are comforts built on the basic building blocks of the Internet: email, mailing lists, newsgroups, websites and weblogs. They enrich certain experiences we already know, they make them cooler, easier to access and enjoy. But anytime these comforts change in ways I don’t like or in ways that go against my principles, I’m ready to abandon them in favour of paid alternatives, and I’m even ready to go ‘back to the basics’ if necessary. The other day, David Chartier was provocatively asking What if Facebook bought Tumblr? and my answer is: I’d move all my content on a second site I own and keep dormant just in case. I certainly wouldn’t “waste time switching from one company to the next.”

Sometimes I think that if more people acted on principle instead of out of convenience, if more people refused to take the path of least resistance, companies like Facebook or Google wouldn’t be where they are, and certainly wouldn’t be as powerful as they’re becoming day after day. Instead, it’s sad how much users are ready to give up in exchange of comfort and convenience.

I could keep using Instagram because it’s a very cool, very easy way to share photos with a network of contacts and friends whose photos I like and whose opinion on my photos I value, but I can’t ignore the fact that I’ll be uploading my stuff on something that is owned by Facebook, a company I despise. So it’s highly likely I will stop posting photos on Instagram, though I’ll keep checking on my friends’ snaps, ‘liking’ them and commenting on them.

But I’ll keep using Twitter and Tumblr and other free services selectively, because not all of them are created equal, and making blanket decisions looks a bit silly to me. But if you fully agree with Schechter’s point, then I suggest you go all the way and stop using Facebook and Google’s services as well. Who knows, we may end up with a better Internet in the long run…

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