Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!
Boy, we’re really coming along, aren’t we? We’re using nice fancy fonts (that your computer/phone/smartwatch doesn’t need to download); we have nice images in place with some basic dominant color detection; and it’s all being generated from Markdown files, meaning that I don’t have to worry about manually editing HTML tags.
Obviously, we should move on to bigger and better ways to improve the site:
Let’s drop in a commenting system! Something like Disqus should work for our purposes. It’s a simple drop-in tag that we could add to our template, and boom, instant on-site discussion.
Ooh, although we could also look at embedding Facebook comments, right? Everybody has those nowadays, because everybody’s logged in to Facebook already.
We need analytics! Just like with Disqus, there are simple drop-in options here. Get that view data. Are these posts performing well in French Polynesia? We won’t know until we measure it!!!
Welcome to the easy path
From the perspective of the internet creator, the internet has gotten really amazing over the past few years. Analytics, commenting systems, domain registration, blog and media hosting, crowdfunding platforms, mailing lists… It’s phenomenal. And for the most part, it’s free.
It’s free! How crazy is that? You can build a whole friggin media empire for free!
How is this possible? How is it possible that in such a short time, we’ve been able to reduce the costs of things to zero. Not only that, but to take out the pain points of even acquiring these free things?
The wisdom of the crowd
I love open-source software. I love the culture around it. I love how we’ve found a way as a society to take advantage of our curiosity and need to build and collaborate, and use it for good. And things like Wikipedia are phenomenal in a similar vein. Break up hard problems into small chunks, empower collaboration, and a lot of really great stuff falls out.
The bargain with open-source culture boils down to this: Hey, since you’re going to do this stuff for fun anyway, can other people make use of it?
There are a ton of asterisks there, and it’s reductive, but the key point is that for the most part, there are no strings attached.
So is that how we got all this awesome free stuff? Boy it’d be great to think so.
The wisdom of the corporation
Most of the tools we use in practice don’t come from that world. Google Analytics — as you might guess from the name — comes from Google. It’s a corporate product with a free price tag. That is not something you’re supposed to be able to justify to your shareholders. Ditto, Facebook, Wordpress, Disqus, Patreon, Kickstarter, Paypal, et cetera.
Some of these companies may be privately held, in which case they’re allowed to do whatever they want. But publicly held companies can get in trouble when they operate in a way that doesn’t maximize shareholder value. So the Hey, we made this stuff for fun, maybe you can use it model of open-source doesn’t hold up here. So what’s going on?
Are these companies running these tools at a loss (if so, how long will these tools be around?)
Are they free because they work as marketing for the company? Are they able to justify the cost that way?
Or are they somehow getting their value back on the product as-is?
Staggeringly often, the answer is the latter. Users (and creators) get access to these free services not because the companies are bad at pricing, and not because they think they’ll be able to upsell. But because the value of the consumer data is worth the cost of maintaining the easy-to-use tools.
So, there’s no free lunch?
Actually, this kinda is a free lunch. Data and behavioral tracking is so commonplace at this point, that I don’t have to worry about you clicking away if I add some third-party trackers.
This has become commonplace enough that no individual has to really bear the responsibility. I wouldn’t be the villain if I gave Google access to your behavior on my site, and you wouldn’t break the business model if you blocked Google’s trackers.
But I don’t like it. Not on this site. Sure we can distribute content out into the world, syndicate it to Medium, share it on Reddit, comment on Facebook, all of that. And all those sites can determine their own tracking policies. But as far as this site alone goes, I value my privacy, and by extension, I value yours. Let’s build our own tools where we can.
To heck with the easy path!
(I’d invite you to leave a comment, but…well, we’ll have to build support for that at some point!)