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
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
Monthly cost: ~$15
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
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
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
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
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.