Free vs Freedom in Online Services

In the younger days of the Internet there was no single social network. There was a combination of newsgroups, e-mail and IRC. All three of these protocols had something in common. Each of them had an RFC specification which meant that you could grab the spec and write some code, and soon you would have a client that could connect to those networks.

The server was the same. Anyone could set up a server or write a new one from scratch if they so wished. IRC servers were set up by casual users and mirrored by friends. Game servers were also set up this way.

What happens today is different. Since the advent of the web based social network IRC has faded into obscurity, but proprietary chat protocols have flourished. XMPP (An open chat protocol) did well but it seems that Google Hangouts is going in another direction. My XMPP client is still connecting to Hangouts, but I don't know how long that will remain possible.

You cannot set up your own Facebook or Google+ server, and you can't build your own clients for those systems in the same way you could with IRC. Within IRC there was no limit to the amount of stuff you could do. In fact IRC is where I learned how to code. I am sure that the kids of today are learning on mobile platforms. That is okay I guess, but it is an alarming trend, because before we know it we will have given ourselves over to Google and Facebook and Twitter and there will be no escape. "I would love to move but all my friends are there" is an interesting new type of problem that was less important when users could easily pick different clients. Most IRC clients allowed you to connect to multiple servers at the same time. You could write bot clients that could do cool stuff for you. This is not so with modern social networking.

How did this situation arise? Well the answer to me at least starts with something that is so simple that it borders on insane. People would rather sacrifice all their freedoms to get something for free rather than getting something amazing for a low price. According to Forbes[1] "A billion users and estimated $5 billion in 2012 revenues translate to about $5 per user. This means Facebook is only reaping an average of $5 per year per user."

So the question is whether you would be willing to pay $5 a year for a social network like Facebook if it was ad free. Wait we can do better than that!

So what if we charge users $10 a year and build a service based social network that provides all the plumbing to connect people and communities together but allow them to supply their own clients and build their own implementations on the platform.

The only purpose of the service would be to provide the dumb pipe and the smarty pants stuff that ensures that there is no data loss and makes sure data can be carried through quickly from one end to the other. What you would end up with is a social service that people pay a small fee to use and are able to use it much more freely than any social network today.

We could once again see young people building bots and having fun with the platform. Different clients with different reasons for existing, and an overall open world that promotes innovation from the tail end.

I know what you are thinking and I agree. There are some valid reasons for centralising. You get to control the medium, you get to show people the same interface, you get to make it a consistent experience, but here is my rebuttal. Software is means to an end. People use software to communicate with others, they use it to be creative or to have fun. Making the software does not make you the owner of the creative work or the conversations that people have. Those are their personal things. If we live in a world run by advertising where everything is expected to be free we cannot be offended when we find out our data is being misused or our privacy is being infringed. We know advertisers want to get in our heads, but we are collectively all too happy to sacrifice our freedoms and rights to save $5 a year.

Can we rebuild the idea of open innovation and reject the ideas of lock in, no matter how benevolent they seem (I Am looking at you Google)? I think we can but we need to rid ourselves of the notion of getting everything for free and start embracing the notion of freedom.