As an experiment I’m making audio recordings [warning: swearing] of some blogposts available, below should be a SoundCloud widget, if not you can also find the audio over here.
I keeping seeing this phrase (which now that I Google see that Derek has gotten there before me (and better) with this) get throw around, as I’m sure anyone on twitter or Facebook or anything with a commenting platform has: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Normally posted as some smart, high-horse pearls of wisdom used to slap people down when they go “Oh hey, I don’t like these recent changes from free service [x], I’m leaving!”.
It’s a very binary statement.
But before I get back to that a quick glance at three evolutions in terms & conditions, monetization and advertising.
Below are some very simplistic paraphrasing of the T&C from when I last bothered to check/could find them for three web services…
Free: we will show you adverts, we will show other people viewing your photos adverts.
Paid: We won’t show you adverts, even against free users’ photos, we won’t show adverts next to your photos even to free users. Pay some money, the adverts go.
We can use your photo across all of Yahoo, although last time we did that in combination with Nintendo it didn’t work out so well for us1 so we tend not to do that so much now.
If you delete your photo then we don’t have any rights to use it anymore (although it gets retained for a short period of time incase we deleted it accidentally).
Free: we may show you adverts and may show other people adverts when they view your photos.
Paid: We give you more storage.
We can use your photo (and probably will) across all of Google, but also with 3rd parties that Google gets involved with. So if you buy a GPS for your car and we’ve partnered with them we may let them ship the device with Picasa photos (i.e. your photos) geotagged to points of interest.
When you delete a photo then we make the best effort possible to stop using that photo for stuff.
Free: we will show you adverts, although we may not tell you they are adverts, also we may use your photos in adverts.
Paid: There is no paid option.
We can use your photos across all of Instagram, Facebook and whoever fancies paying us for some kind of partnership deal.
When you delete a photo then we keep it anyway and retain the right to carry on using however we see fit.
…it’s worth noting that these go from “early” web services when it was all still pretty new and people actually paid for stuff, to more recent services that are exploring new business models. For what it’s worth I’m not actually against this move, Instagram (and Facebook) have recently said (roughly) “we’re experimenting with different advertising models” which is a sensible and correct thing to do.
Somewhere in all that there’ll be a happy medium where users are happy to maybe pay a bit, be advertised to a bit and have their content used to sell to other people a bit, in return for whatever service is being offered. The type of service would effect the mix I’d be happy with.
Which gets us back to the “you are the product” statement.
We get it, we understand, we’re not that stupid, it’s a lot more nuanced that that, which is why it’s not a great topic to talk about on twitter.
People have understood this for years and often make decisions (sometimes on a daily basis) on that understanding. People get it that when you enter a quiz that asks for some details and an address that you’re trading your information for the chance to win a free thing. Store loyalty card, same thing, people choose to have them to get 5%, 10% or whatever off the goods in return for tracking, address and so on, or maybe they decide their information is worth more than the money they’d save and being tracked is creepy2.
People make this decision all the time. Buy stuff from Amazon because it’s cheaper, ships fast enough that you don’t need to bother leaving the house and the recommendations aren’t actually that bad? Totally worth it for the aggregated tracking they do, well for me anyway.
“You’re the product!” Yes, fine, we, know!
But here’s the thing, each time we make that deal we decide if it’s worth it or not. We know that companies are generally going to be shitty and sketchy, but we’re prepared to put up with an amount of shitty and sketchiness in return for whatever it is they’re offering.
Sometimes we have no idea what the deal is, in the case of Instagram we got fast frictionless easy fun photo sharing and it cost us nothing but a generic Terms & Conditions. We knew they’d have to attempt to make money somehow, we knew that was coming, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and all that, we just weren’t sure in exactly what way they’d sell us out. Would they have a paid for option? Would they show us adverts? We weren’t sure, some of us old timers who remember paying for services were going “here, take my cash, I like your service, I want you to stay around”.
But no, you sold to Facebook, and we felt a chill.
Oh, we though, it’s going to be that kind of deal is it? At this point some people baled, some of us got nervous and others thought not much of it. We generally accepted that now we got our fun free service in return for our social graph4 and some future integration terror.
“If you’re not paying for it you’re the product!” sigh
Then came the great Terms and Conditions change of December 2012, or clarification, or not change depending on who’s version you read, and then the great rollback to the better/worse T&C from before but not quite with some fiddly other bits added in later, or something.
“You are the product!” Oh, fuck, off!
For many people it wasn’t the new T&C that was the problem, it was that Instagram was no longer a service we felt comfortable making our “we’re the product deal” with. A discount store card in return for tracking is a fairly easy deal to opt-in or out of. Is this prize worth the slim chance of winning in return for handing over my details? These are fairly easy decisions for us as consumers to make, sometimes we can even happily make a split-second decision on them. They are patterns we’ve grown up to recognise. The Instagram change just felt kind of wooly, sudden, unknowable, untrustworthy, potentially weird.
We understand that we’re the product, just not exactly sure that the way we were becoming the product was one we felt happy with. Instagram said themselves that they were planning on “experimenting with new advertising models”. Now I think that’s good, I like free stuff and I like businesses to be able to support their developers but personally I think I’ll wait until they’ve finished experimenting so that I can then decide once again if it’s a deal I want to make with them.
And that’s why a whole bunch of people left, well some, not because someone on twitter uttered the free/product phrase, and we collectively smacked our collective foreheads with our collective hands and went “Doh, of course, how could I have been so blind to this amazing revelation?” but because…
“we’re part of Facebook now so you can pretty much trust us to change everything around you on a regular basis but now we’re also experimenting with your photos while we figure out how to make money”
…makes it really hard to decide if the deal is worth it or not.
Which is fine, Facebook and Instagram can continue to experiment with the millions of smart, intelligent, bleeding edge personal content creators that are still there until they find a model that works. It may be brilliant, it may be a model that other services adopt, it may become a personal data/service deal pattern that’s as easy to understand as quizzes and store cards.
If experience teaches us anything it’s that these new patterns are going to appear faster than before, and the deal making landscape shift in tighter cycles. Which means that us, as users will have to either get smarter at recognising these shifting patterns or more prepared to take risks with our content…
…oh hello Vine you gorgeous sexy thing.
 Even though the Flickr T&C allow Yahoo! to use the photos across brand/site they once created a Microsite for Nintendo that took a unfiltered feed of photos tagged in a certain way and I’m sure you can guess how well that turned out once the users found out (which took all of zero milliseconds).
 even though they are anyway, but that’s a whole different agreement they’ve entered into with credit/debit cards in return for not having to carry around amounts of cash all the time 3
 the Social Graph of Facebook was symmetrical. If someone added you as a friend that you had to allow it and add them back. This way you could control who you were connected to in the eyes of Facebook (although obviously they log the attempts to connect). However in the world of Instagram following is asymmetrical, you could have lots of people following you but only follow a few people back. This is a different and potentially useful Social Graph for Facebook, once all the Instagram accounts are mapped to Facebook account they can tell that user [x] is followed by all these other people without user [x] having to approve those connections. Suddenly Facebook knows a whole bunch more about who follows who than they did before. The symmetrical control is gone.