COLUMN-Hate your free service? Go tweet yourself

Reuters

By Jack Shafer

Oct 31 (Reuters) - Twitter users by the thousands - or maybeeven the hundreds! - stubbed their scrolling fingers this weekat the news of a new default setting in the popular service.Previously, links to photos or videos in tweets hosted onTwitter servers did not appear in a user's "timeline." Now,visual previews "will be front and center in tweets," thecompany announced.

By Web standards, the Twitter change was incremental. But asWired's Mat Honan and BuzzFeed's John Herman explained, itnonetheless infuriated longtime users who like theirinformation-compressed, character-based Twitter just the way itis. These veteran users regard the inclusion of visuals to theirTwitter timeline like the addition of a fistful of arrowroot totheir miso soup, and don't care that the visuals will make iteasier for the company - as it approaches a public offering - tosell ads and compete with the visually richer Facebook andGoogle+ services.

Aside from growling about it on Twitter, what can the140-character minimalists do? Not much. Free Web serviceoutposts like Twitter, Facebook, Google, SkyDrive, Dropbox andthe rest can change their features and their terms of service(ToS) at will unless the Federal Trade Commission intercedeswith a privacy audit or ruling. The only real resort for irateusers is to delete their account and take their cheapskate waysto another free service. For the most part, this never happens.Back in 2010, "Quit Facebook Day" organizers convinced only33,313 out of 400 million users to disconnect from the service,as Alex Howard reported. It turns out to be easier for someoneto leave a marriage than it is to abandon a Facebook or Twitteraccount. If you're fed up with your marriage, there's abottomless stock of potential spouses. But there is only oneTwitter and one Facebook. Grow heavily invested in a freeservice - Google would be mine - and you'll grudgingly surrenderyour golden retriever, your first-born, and your left kidney ifand when the new ToS require it.

It's only fair to offer some sort of defense of expandingterms of service: Free online services like Facebook and Googleare, after all, not static products like a head of lettuce, anew car, or even a piece of packaged software. Because theproduct is changing almost weekly, invariably becoming "better"in the company's eyes, ToS creep is justified. A "new" productrequires a new agreement from the user.

But everyone now knows that the ToS noose is designed togrow tighter and tighter until it turns customers into theservice's revenue-producing slaves. Not to single Facebook out,but its history perfectly illustrates the progression of a freeservice - from partner-in-symbiosis with users, to bloodsuckingparasite. An Electronic Frontier Foundation timeline and a MattMcKeon visualization, both from 2010, demonstrate the speed withwhich Facebook's privacy policies eroded as the service gotlarger and desired more user information to sell to advertisers.Locking users in is a profitable strategy. Recruiting millionsof users and selling them to advertisers has garnered Google aprojected 33 percent share of the global online advertisingmarket.

If ToS creep has worked so well for Google, Facebook andTwitter, why don't more companies make their products andservices free or free-ish and then, after having pacified thecustomer, drain him of his net worth? Amazon appears to haveadapted this business model to shopping, resulting in MatthewYglesias's pithy observation that the company behaves like "acharitable organization being run by elements of the investmentcommunity for the benefit of consumers." Amazon's goal,everybody concedes, isn't that much different than Facebook's orGoogle's. It wants to become the ultimate company in itscategory, and harvest its customer base over the long haul.

Free services probably worry less about angering users (asthey slowly strangle them) than they do about new competitors.Freeness bestows upon incumbents great power but also greatvulnerability, as Friendster and MySpace's founders would gladlyexplain. Rapid advances in technology, which steadily make itcheaper for competitors to enter online services, putextraordinary pressures on the incumbents who mustsimultaneously battle in new markets while protecting theirolder, profitable ones. The best example of the pain ofincumbency is Google's long and hopeless war on Facebook. Googleowned the Internet until Facebook arrived, and nothing it hasthrown at the Zuckerberg express (Orkut, Google Friend Connect,Google Buzz, and now Google+) has succeeded. Meanwhile, Facebookhas neatly transitioned from desktop/laptop dominance to mobiledevice success, but how long will that position hold? The techpress tells us that the smartphone era has peaked and will soonto be replaced with wearable devices like Google Glass, "smart"clothing, bracelets, watches and even implants.

No matter which new technology supplants today's establishedorder, I expect the circle to repeat itself, with the newentrants creating simpler services governed by simpler terms ofservice - until, of course, they too grow fat and unwieldy andstart issuing bloated terms of services of their own. At whichpoint I fully expect that the bosses will insist on insertingpictures and video in the new text-based timeline and somebudding entrepreneur will turn the wheel once more.

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