Six years ago, I wrote a post called “The Fragility of Free”, ostensibly about how “free” things will always break down over time, using popular apps, and Twitter as my examples. You can read the post here, while the references are dated (except Twitter) I still like the post.
Here’s a few choice quotes, yes quoting myself, that I want to pull back up:
It’s at this moment that we begin to see the fragilities of the free system. Things that never had ads, get ads — things that were free, now cost a monthly fee. We have all seen it before with hundreds of services — many of which are no longer around.
Users don’t care whether you are profitable, they only care whether and how your profitability will affect them. With Twitter it seems users will be putting up with only using the official Twitter clients and then on top of that putting up with advertising being forced into their streams.
In the post I outline how free always comes to a crashing end. With current news coming out these past few months, evidence, and reports now surfacing about the sheer level of depth Facebook and Twitter played in the Russian propaganda machine1 it’s clear how detrimental the need for money can be in a business who will not ask the primary users for money.
Twitter and Facebook made money, and continue to make more money, off of morally questionable content, and advertising. Full stop. Who knows, or cares, if that changes, because it happened already and the people who let it happen are the same people still running those companies. Whether it ever happens again, doesn’t change the fact that it happened and those who let it happen still have their jobs.
This is the problem with “free”, it is costing us as a general world population, more than we bargained for, while having no repercussions to those who perpetrated it because they made their stakeholders money. Six years ago I never saw anything more malicious than shitty ads being all over Twitter — utterly failing to account for the idea that those very ads might allow a foreign government to influence what American’s hold most dear: our freedom.2
If we continue to give these services attention and recognition, if we continue to not press them to be moral (or at least uphold the values of the country at large), and we continue to support and defend “free” services, then we should no longer be surprised when those services need to make money, and do whatever they want to make that money. It’s not about the ads, as it turns out, it’s about the content of those ads, it’s about the armies of bots creating more and more free accounts to spread hatred and influence our anecdotal evidence.
It’s far worse than I thought it was six years ago.