You Get What You Pay For

We're just shutting down delicious, not selling your children to gypsies. Get the f-ck over it.

First off, let me apologize for ending the title of this post with a preposition. I am playing off an idiom, so I think I have some leeway. Besides, “You get that for which you pay” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

In the last week I have watched two free web services I use announce (in some fashion) that they are going away. This has caused a good deal of frustration and anger on behalf of users. And it’s all just a repeat of things I have seen on the web for 15 years now.

I have watched the Brightkite blog, Facebook page and Brightkite/Twitter accounts get hammered with angry and abusive comments from users (Brightkite Yields to Foursquare, Gowalla, Etc.).

I have watched on Twitter as people have derided Yahoo’s decision to shut down, the place where they have shared and stored bookmarks for years (Leaked Slide Shows Yahoo Is Killing Delicious & Other Web Apps at Mashable).

I felt vindicated when Google decided to pull the plug on Google Wave, partly owing to the fact that nobody could quite figure out how to wield something that was a floor wax and a dessert topping all in one (Google Wave is Dead at ReadWriteWeb).

I have watched as some of the URL shorteners on which we have come to rely for services like Twitter have announced that they are going away, or have just disappeared (List of URL Shorteners Grows Shortener).

I, and perhaps the entire web, breathed a sigh of relief when Geocities announced it was going to take a dirt nap — and finally did (Wait – GeoCities Still Exists?).

I remember when both Hotmail and Yahoo decided it was time to start charging for access to some of the more enhanced features of the free email they offered users (Say Goodbye to Free Email).

I saw people panic when they might lose access to all sorts of free video, photos, and even text content from CNN, Salon, and others (End of the Free Content Ride?).

We Get It; You’ve Been There, What’s Your Point?

These services all have a couple key things in common:

  1. Users have put a lot of time, energy, and apparently emotion into these services.
  2. They are free.

The second point, in my opinion, should mitigate the first point. If you as a user are not paying to use a service, then is it a wise decision to build your social life or your business around it? Do you as a user not realize that these organizations owe you nothing?

As Brightkite announced the shuttering of its core service with only a week heads-up, they were kind enough to allow users to grab their data via RSS feeds. Yahoo hasn’t even formalized the future of, but already fans have found a way to grab the data. But in both of these cases, if you as a user aren’t backing up your data, keeping an archive, or storing it elsewhere, whose fault is it really that you might lose it all?

Is it wise to build a social media marketing campaign on Facebook, a platform notorious for changing the rules (features, privacy controls, layout, etc.) on a whim? Is relying on a free URL shortener service a good idea as the only method to present links to your highly developed web marketing campaigns? Should you really run your entire business on the features offered by Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, etc? If you have to alert staff/friends/partners to something important in a timely fashion, can you really trust Twitter to do what you need?

The culture of the web (nee Internet) has always been one of an open and sharing environment, where people and organizations post information that they understand will be shared/borrowed/stolen/derided. Somehow users of the web have come to expect that everything is, or should be, free. Look at the proliferation of sites to steal movies and music as an example on one end of the spectrum. On the other end is the reliance on Wikipedia by every school kid across the country instead of a purchased encyclopedia.

Let’s all take some time to evaluate our plans and what we are doing. When that vendor who builds Facebook campaigns comes back to tell you that what he/she built last year won’t work this year due to a Facebook change, there is your cost. When you have to take time from your real work to download all your bookmarks just so you can try to find a way to share them again or even get them into your browser, there is your cost. When you build a business on the back of a Twitter API and have to retool your entire platform due to an arbitrary change in how you call the service, there is your cost. When your Google Doc is sitting in “the cloud” and you’re sitting in a meeting without wifi just before you have to present it, there is your cost.

This cost, however, ignores something that can’t be measured on your end with dollars. The cost of sharing your personal information, your activities, your habits, are all your daily cost for using many of these services.

You may be under the impression that I have something against these free services. The use of this very blog should tell you otherwise. Instead I have something against users who have an expectation of free, top-notch service from organizations who are really only around as far as their cash flow can sustain them.

I keep my bookmarks on my local machine and just share the files between computers. I have been archiving my Brightkite photos since I started using the service, and archiving the posts to Twitter and Facebook, all the while backing up my Twitter stream. I use locally-installed software (MS Word, OpenOffice) writing to generic formats (RTF, etc.) and keep the files I need where I can access them (file vault on my site). I pay for a personal email service in addition to maintaining a free one. Other than Twitter, with its character limits, I avoid URL shorteners (and have no interest in rolling my own). I signed up for Diaspora in the hopes that I can funnel all my social media chaos to the one place I can take it with me. I keep a landline in my house so when the power goes out I can still make a phone call to 911.

I don’t tweet my disgust when Facebook changes its layout. I don’t post angry comments on Brightkite’s wall when they kill a service. I don’t try to organize people to take their time to rebuild Google Wave when I cannot. I don’t punch my co-worker when he buys me a sandwich and the deli failed to exclude the mayo.

Let’s all take some personal responsibility and stop relying solely on something simply because it’s free. Your favorite free thing is different or gone (or will be). Suck it up and move on.

Update: January 10, 2011

Alex Williams at ReadWriteWeb echoes the general theme of expecting free stuff in the post “Dimdim: The Risk of Using A Free Service.”

Update: January 12, 2011

Free sometimes means “full of malware and viruses,” even when you are just installing free themes for your blog: Why You Should Never Search For Free WordPress Themes in Google or Anywhere Else

Update: January 2, 2014

Jeffrey Zeldman explains the process in a narrative: The Black Hole of The Valley

Update: April 12, 2016

So many free things have come and gone since I first wrote this. Medium has been on my radar for a while as entire organizations rely on it as their “blogging” platform, and I am suspect for all the reasons outlined above.



As the recipient of your free opinion, I'd like to lodge a protest. Oh, wait a minute. Never mind.


We will get around to reviewing all protests in due time, whenever that really is. Thank you, {#2390E678CF89}, for your concern.


Value in, value out. It isn't just "free", it's the return one gets for giving data so freely. We give Facebook information that ten years ago we didn't give any brands without getting something in return. We tell FourSquare where we are, have locations tagged on images, all under the guise of the stuff working better, but the return is less privacy.

Free tools are free because what we give away to them. And if the free tool claims ownership of your stuff (see Twitpic), then consider a paid service that has a business model that doesn't involve selling data.

So free also has a caveat: the cost is data. Give it, get the service for free.


The Twitpic issue you mention is a perfect example of how using a free service can cost you rights to your own content, while still having no recourse to address the quality of the service.


Don't aplogize! Prepositions at the end of a sentence are not as treacherous as we've been led to believe! (In most germanic languages, there are a number of grammatical constructs on account of which it is ONLY correct to end certain sentences with a preposition).



I understand where the rule came from and that it isn't even a rule (just the function of a rant from an angry monk), but I still try to avoid them. I also don't wear white after Labor Day (or at all, really), but I think we all know that rule isn't so restrictive anymore.

Leave a Comment or Response

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>