Paying for stuff

It's not exactly the done thing on today's web, but I'm a huge believer in paying for web services. I've never been comfortable with the ad-supported web. When pure advertising is the only revenue stream supporting a product or service I worry about the deleterious effect upon that product or service.


I don't like the implication that they're really working for their sponsor's interests ahead of mine. I don't like the mental effort of hunting down all the opt-outs, of second-guessing potential consequences of the creepy data-mining and covert information sharing with networks of 'trusted partners'. More straightforwardly, for many cases, I suspect the numbers don't really balance; I find it difficult to rely heavily on something with a potentially precarious revenue stream. I don't want to push too much content into, or build infrastructure around things that won't necessarily be around in a year or two.


Paying directly for things makes everything seem more explicit and straightforward. I'm the customer. I can make informed decisions about the cost and usefulness of the thing. It's in the better interests of the service provider not to abuse the relationship. A product unspoilt and unhindered by commercial marriages should stand a better chance of evolving towards it's essential form. So I'm a relatively easy sell as a consumer. Offer me a useful service, at a reasonable price, and I'm quite likely to pay you for it. 


The flipside of this is that I'm really cautious about the reverse. Purely ad-supported sites, especially ones that seem to be offering far too much  for free without being noticeably saturated with advertising make me feel slightly paranoid. I like to see which way the money flows.


Here's a list of the sort of internety things I currently pay for, and will happily endorse. 



  • Spotify - I'm a long-time tenner a month customer. I think it's too expensive, but I somehow never quite unsubscribe.

  • Flickr - I have a pro account for photo hosting. 

  • DynDNS - I have a paid account, which gets me DNS zone hosting as well as a dynamic hostname

  • Pinboard.in - I like this bookmarking service. I was a very early adopter, and therefore my account cost a pittance due to the unique way pinboard is funded. 

  • Lastpass - I like this service so much I subscribed, just to do my bit to ensure they stay in business

  • Linode - my internet hosts are linux virtual machines hosted with this service. Linode is excellent. 

  • Word Podcast : I subscribed to the (now sadly folded) Word Magazine, primarily to access their very enjoyable podcast.

  • Metafilter : I don't use this site very much any more, but back in the old days, I got so much surfing out of it, I eventually bought a paid account just to contribute back.

  • Reddit : Similarly, I bought a founder Reddit Gold account when they appealed for cash, because I really enjoyed Reddit back before the eternal September.

  • iTunes : I use iTunes for quite a lot of things, apps, movie rentals and purchases, music purchases, and I have an iTunes Match subscription. If you have enough Apple gear to make an 'ecosystem', it's a good service.

  • Amazon Prime : I love Amazon. Some days, I wish I still worked for them.

  • Netflix : Most of my TV watching these days is netflix via Apple TV

  • App.net : - I signed up for an app.net account the second I heard about it.


It's not a huge list. I'd like it to be larger. There's whole categories of things I'd probably cheerfully pay for should they exist. I'd pay a subscription for a decent search engine that wasn't a front for a creepy advertising juggernaut. I might pay for a subscription 'social' network, maybe something like a family-focused Yammer . I'd love something like a cheaper netflix that just focused on pre-1960s movies and archive TV. I'd like something like the old programming.reddit or hacker news. I'd love a smart news aggregator, and if I can't find one to pay for soon, I may have to invent one.

 

In the olden times, there was a lot of talk about internet micropayments , and about how they couldn't possibly work, or how they were imminent and essential to safeguard the future of the web . They never really quite happened, and the shiny allure of the internet as a huge content pipe of free everything triumphed over all, but lately it feels to me like the mood is perhaps shifting a little.

 

People seem to be wising up to some of the privacy considerations of infinitely free stuff that is only ever paid for covertly. The mobile app store culture has engendered a user community more acclimatised to fee-paying for services. Kindle is powering a minor revolution in self-publishing . Finally, there's Kickstarter , which is perhaps the most interesting current development in internet financing.

 

There's nothing particularly new about the thinking behind Kickstarter. Through a combination of great execution and timing, it seems to have hit critical mass over the last 12 months. In the midst of all the long-tail nerd-bait (I recently signed on for my first funding )  and snake oil there are signs of some interesting funding efforts converging towards the mainstream. Champion self-publicist Amanda Palmer recently powered her project past the magical $1,000,000 mark, to flurries of 'old media' press interest.

 

App.net is a manifest demonstration that I'm not completely alone in this line of thinking. Launched slightly before  twitter's recent frantic, shark-jumping, repositioning of it's terms of service , it seemed a futile, quixotic gesture when I signed up to fund it on it's kickstarter-esque ( apparently kickstarter's TOS precludes funding things like ongoing businesses, so they rolled their own thing ) signup page . I fully expected it to fall short of it's goal, but maybe pick up some positive news coverage as it flamed out, much like Diaspora did before. To my surprise it charged past the funding target ahead of the deadline, and closed way ahead of the target figure. Since then, they've launched the API, and built a sort of twitter clone built across it at alpha.app.net , which is busy enough to be an almost useful, slightly cliquey chit-chat network of it's own. It seems like app.net has the potential to self-host itself as at least a niche social network for privacy nerds and web developers. For some, that might be good enough, but I suspect the real power of app.net lies within it's potential to become a kind of ad-hoc real-time message bus for higher layered services over it's API. It remains to be seen if it can gather enough developer / user mindshare to deliver on the potential.

 

The most high-profile campaign I've yet seen is the Penny Arcade Sells Out . High profile, high traffic funny-picture sites are the gold-standard of high volume ad serving, with content that massive audiences enjoy, but are used to reading for "free".  Although they fell short of their more extravagant targets, including the 'complete ad removal', they hit their funding target, and raised half a million dollars. An A-lister website demonstrating the ability to generate competitive income with top level ad-sales entirely from direct user funding? Nearly. Is the tide turning? I don't know, but I can feel it pull.

 
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