Facebook and the Tragedy of Free Software

The technology community is making much ado about the personal information land-grab that Facebook orchestrated recently. Basically, information that was formerly protected by your account’s privacy settings was now linked to public pages. This would make it easier for marketers to target users and possibly allow Mark Zuckerberg to finally make a profit. Those who were attracted to Facebook for its privacy features had been officially stabbed in the back.

Is anybody surprised by this development? Facebook has rallied almost half a billion users under service that charged absolutely nothing. Consider to time and money it takes to manage a user base of that size. The interface complaints alone could fill an entire rack server. Clearly, something had to give. Facebook needed money to survive, and that user info was the only way to get it. This leaves us with a question: Can free web software be trusted?

It’s the same trap that foiled many internet start-ups in the 90’s. Computers made the transit and storage of information literally too cheap to meter. It doesn’t make sense charging for a service that you put no effort into providing. Your competitors will just undercut you. However, just because one aspect of your business is plentiful enough to be free, that doesn’t mean the whole thing should be. Websites still need hardware and active management to provide any services at all. Free web software should only be a platform for other paid services that can support the free stuff.

Facebook’s example underlines the need for day-one monetization, if not profitability of any web service. Google, CraigslistFlickr and Livejournal all have paid components which support stellar free services. There will always be free open source alternatives for the Facebooks of the world, but the time it takes to have software that is easy to use and Just Works™ will always require some kind of cash. So if you have website and you put a price tag on some of its features, don’t think of it as selling out to the man. That money is a symbol of trust and reliance on your expertise. If you can fulfill the promise of that symbol, then the world will beat a path to your door.