There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Today Robert Scoble wrote a really interesting and thought-provoking article on his blog about the alleged suspension/removal of Joel Comm’s Facebook account. He draws a parallel to the revocation of Robert’s own Facebook account and makes a good case for Facebook being outta line.

Here’s my response to Robert:

In defense of you, Joel and countless others who have been suspended or removed from Facebook, it certainly doesn’t seem like you’re being treated fairly. It’s hard to imagine that someone with 5,000 confirmed Facebook friends and ten times as many followers on Twitter could be considered a spambot. Generally speaking, online communities, wikis, social networks, etc. have a way of policing themselves; content that other people enjoy gets shared and promoted while spam and other “noise” gets blocked or ignored. Facebook and other social sites would all be best-served by this sort of grassroots self-policing, rather than a top-down approach.

However, there’s a subtle point to which some other readers have alluded in the comments. You wrote, “I don’t support companies that ‘erase’ MY data without my permission.” What you may not realize is that based on Facebook’s TOS, what you think are “your data” actually are not “your data,” not by a long shot, not once you’ve posted them on Facebook.

If you think there are safer or better places than Facebook to put “your data” on the internet, you’re also mistaken. Take a peek at Google’s TOS. In particular, read section 11, where you hand over all rights to “your” content to them (except basic copyright, which you automatically have any time you produce an original work and put your name on it). You’re basically giving Google a free license to use your content — even for their own commercial gain!

Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. In return for providing “free” distribution of “your” content, companies like Facebook, Google and the likes are creating massive databases of incredibly valuable “information capital.” This in turn allows them to offer you a “free” service while they sell this information capital — the stuff you gave them, remember? — to advertisers. That pays their bills, which in turn allows them to continue to give you “free” content distribution.

Average people (who upload videos of dogs on skateboards, etc. to Facebook) don’t care about data ownership and are perfectly happy to hand the rights to their content over to Facebook or Google it order to share it more easily with their friends. Average people — however — aren’t one man media outlets, either, but YOU are. So, being an internet/social media mogul, I’m sure you understand that content distribution isn’t free.

The solution? Host your content yourself! People like you and Joel have the resources to pay for your own hosting AND you have loyal audiences that will follow you wherever you go. You can leverage social media to help the viral spread of your content, but the obvious goal of your participation in social media and social networking should be to drive eyeballs/click-throughs back to YOUR site so people can view YOUR content, ensuring that YOUR advertisers get bang for their buck.

It really all boils down to two old sayings: there’s no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for. Want to pay for your own hosting and distribution? Then you can own your own content. Want to get free distribution from Facebook or Google? Then be prepared to give them something in return.

Web 2.0 and Cascading SLAs

twitter-down-againHerein lies a great example of one of the downsides of Web 2.0. It’s something I call “cascading SLAs.”

I was checking feedhaus today and I noticed that the flickr badge (the cool lil’ widget that displays a little collage of photos) was down for the count. I thought perhaps I had broken something on the dev server, but a quick health check revealed that everything was okay with feedhaus.

So, I decided to check out flickr to see if there were any messages about known downtime, current server issues, etc. Lo and behold, flickr was also down! Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

This demonstrates one of the classic problems with mashups, a crucial component of Web 2.0: cascading SLAs (Service-Level Agreements), or, more precisely, a lack thereof.

Here at feedhaus, I have a responsibility to provide up-to-date news so that my users will be the “first to know.” I can (although I probably won’t) guarantee a level of service for feedhaus’s ability to deliver content. But, as a multi-band content aggregator, I’m solely dependent on the sources of content — namely flickr, YouTube and you-name-it syndicated feed from whatever.com. Now if my sources are CNN, Google, Fox, etc. I would expect pretty dependable service. But Digg? Twitter? Seeing what happened to Skype recently, I’m beginning to wonder if everyone, even the biggest — and most distributed — systems are subject to serious unplanned downtime.

So, what I’m getting at here is that my SLA, no matter how much I pay my attorneys to draft it, is only as good as the SLAs of the services that I use. Now, I’m not paying the sources for those services — and, I might add, you’re not paying me to use feedhaus — so I have no SLAs for my underlying services, which makes my SLA worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Do you see the problem? (I’m reminded of a certain scene from the 1989 classic comedy Major League. “See, it says right there; no calisthenics. What do you think of that?”)

So, before you start drafting that SLA for the cool new mashup you just built between Google Maps and Facebook, think about the stability and sustainability of your sources. Or else your SLA might have the same fate as Roger Dorn’s contract. . . .

Datamize vs. Plumtree: another silly software patent bites the dust

I usually don’t take much interest in legal matters, but I found this tidbit quite interesting and even a bit entertaining.

Two weeks ago, in an appellate court ruling, Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker wrote that a patent infringement suit filed by Datamize against Plumtree Software should be essentially thrown out the window (by what’s called a summary judgment) based on the fact that the words “aesthetically pleasing” make Datamize’s patent invalid.

Intrigued? I was.

It turns out that Datamize filed patent 6,014,137 back in early 1997, right around the same time that Plumtree founders Joe McVeigh, Glenn Kelman and Kirill Sheynkman were dreaming up version 1.0 of the Plumtree portal and getting Plumtree Software, Inc. off the ground. The patent tries to lay claim to the act of “developing and maintaining user interface screens for multimedia kiosk systems” that can be “customized quickly and easily” while following “good standards of aesthetics and user friendliness.”

The appellate court’s main objection to the patent was the use of the phrase “aesthetically pleasing” because the definition of aesthetics has too much to do with deciding what’s beautiful and what’s not, which is far too subjective to be enforceable. In other words, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beerholder, even when it comes to kiosks!

I’m just happy to see another worthless software patent get thrown out for two reasons. One is that I have a particular distaste for overly broad and blatantly obvious software patents (e.g. the classic Amazon one-click ordering example, 5,960,411) and two is that I have sharp disdain for companies that try to use their patents to squeeze money out of the market-leader in their industry simply because they’re losing and acting like sore losers.

If you want to win in this business (or any business), make your product or service better, market it better, sell it better and support it better than your competitors. At least that’s our philosophy at bdg.