Money, Services, and the Changing Nature of Information Consumption

September 20th, 2004

Les is wondering how people are planning to finance and support services like Bloglines, flickr, and del.icio.us. It’s a question that can be addressed from two directions, both interesting. You can frame the question as, “What is the business model?”, or you can ask “How does a community support a resource it finds useful?”.

One line that jumped out at me at me was

I do appear to shell out at least $50 per month in internet services beyond my bandwidth bill.

That got me thinking. A few years ago this would have been an unprecedentedly large amount. The idea that we were all going to get rich selling online services was so firmly rejected that it became a commonly accepted truism that “people won’t pay for things online”, and yet, quietly, almost under the radar this seems to be changing.

Looking at my personal expenses online they can be broken down into: paid content, online tools, online services, personal hosting, and net facilitated donations.

Paid content

I maintain a Safari account (which after several years of comp I started paying for last year), I’m a Zmag sustainer, and in the past I’ve subscribed to several premium info sources. 90-95% of my daily information consumption is network mediated — blogs, online newspapers, email newsletters, and radio streams. The bulk of the rest of it comes from magazines. (which I either subscribe to, or pick up on the newsstand depending on whether I want to financially support the publisher).

Monthly cost: ~$15

Online tools

I use a large number of online tools in my daily life, from the ubiquitous Google, to the essential Bloglines. I currently experimenting with using Gmail, having tried nearly all of the webmail products at one point or another over the years. Currently I’m a light weight user of Use Tasks, for online managed tasks, and used to be a regular user of the Anyday.com hosted pim service (I also was an Anyday developer)

For a while I was using All Consuming to facilitate my book reading habit, and in its heyday I was a heavy user of BackFlip, a dotcom era del.icio.us. (I feel like I’m forgetting a handful of key tools here, I’ll have to back fill them later)

Beyond my text editor, most of my work (and most of my day) happens within the confines of a Firefox window. Currently the only tool I’m paying for is Use Tasks.

Monthly cost: ~$4

Online services

Hard to split online services from online tools really, but I guess I’m thinking of net facilitated services. Netflix is a good example, as is the iTunes Music Store. Pobox mail forwarding is a slightly murkier one. Automated clipping services like PubSub are largely indistinguishable from tools. You could argue that webmail, or a provider like Fastmail should actually be in this category.

A chunk of the my monthly online spending goes to this category, mostly Netflix, with handful of change going to various more obscure services.

Monthly cost: ~$27

Personal Hosting

The cost of maintaining an online presence. My primary web and email hosting are covered as a side benefit of some of the tech activism I do, but I do pay for a hosted dev box (a VLS really), and have been contemplating setting up a new solution for email.

Monthly cost: $10

Donations

I make both regular and irregular donations to a number of online services. Some of the donations are towards tech activist projects like Riseup, or Activista. Some are for funding drives for web commons projects (e.g. Wikipedia, or Mirror Project), or blogger bailouts (e.g. the Daring Fireball pledge drive)

Of all the discussed categories, this is my largest expense.

Monthly cost: ~$35

Running the Numbers

Works out to something like $90/month above basic connectivity. (with the single largest line item being Netflix, so embarrassing, I really need to learn how to use Bittorrent) Might sound like a lot, but if you calculate that I spend anywhere from 10-14 hours a day online, thats about $0.25 an hour for a service that provides personal and work communication, information and professional development, news and entertainment. Its significantly less then I spend monthly on food, rent or transportation, and yet I’d say its at least as fundamental to me as any of those. It’s about what I spend on books (a bit less), but given I’m not in school currently that isn’t a good indicator.

Some obvious places to be spending more

It is odd to want to spend more, and frankly, I don’t. In particular the problem in spending more on services means you need to either figure out how to have services swell, and shrink with changing income, or you get stuck having raised the minimum you can live on, which is a dangerous relationship to get into with capitalism.

Still, I really should be spending another $5-$10/monthly on personal hosting in order to get a more functional email setup, as a person who lives largely online spending so little to maintain the presence seems….off.

I really should be paying more for online tools. Another $5 monthly for Bloglines at least in a no brainer. Some amount of money to a meaningful and useful social software/collaboration tool is burning a hole in my pocket. And a good hosted pim/tasks/reminders service still needs to get (re-)built.

Noticeably absent from the list are any self supporting community or discussion spaces. I’m not sure I believe in virtual communities, which doesn’t seem to stop me from being involved in a ridiculously large number of them. Most exist in a nebulous hybrid mailing list/forum/irc space, none of which ever seems to get paid for, and none of which ever seem to improve and become more useful. I know several people, like my brother, who participate in incredibly specialized and erudite online communities. A way of striking a balance between getting the right people into the community, and supporting growth needs to found.

Lastly independent media is still doing a lousy job of developing models to deliver information both locally and globally using the internet, and doing an even worse job of figuring out how to use the net to engage meaningful participation and support. Right now most of my net mediated media consumption is filtered corporate media, the filters are important, interesting, and useful, to a self sustaining alternative it ain’t.

I’ve totally failed to answer Les’ question, but I thought it might be worth re-examining our received wisdom about people’s online spending habits, or at least mine.

Doing some rough calculations based on current income levels, amount of value I’m deriving or wish to be deriving, and looking at the above list, I’d say there is about $150-$250/monthly that I should be spending in one of these 5 categories that I’m not for lack of a meaningful place to spend it.

That said, as we move towards more and more hosted/online services and tools, its going to become increasingly important to develop new models of engagement, and transparency. What do the ideals of free software mean in the context of a hosted service? How do I fork if I don’t like where things are going? What is the role of collective ownership in these projects, or is it assumed I’m simply a consumer? Thats a whole other essay, and one I’m too tired to start right now.

And TeleDyn has an excellent essay Living with Webservices, which seems to be closely related in ways my brain is totally refusing to articulate right now. Good night.

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