Regardless of how douchey a maneuver founding something like app.net feels, I think their manifesto does include an important point:
We are selling our product, NOT our users.
In government and economics, there’s a lot of talk about making sure the incentives (i.e. money trail) is “proper” to sort of maximize some kind of “goodness function”, bettering humanity or what not.
And clearly, when companies are in the business of creating the best possible product as well as trying to sell these souls for the most profit, this creates a dynamic that is “corrupt”.
Larry Lessig, et al. have strategies for dealing with political corruption, remove the sourcing of money from the equation by restricting campaigns to diminutive federally allotted pool. In the startup world you have investors, accelerators, venture capitalists, and rich crazy aunts which serve the same purpose: alleviate the issue of money from the table so the incentives are calibrated to the right goalpost.
The problem is that Ol’ Georgie stalks afar, and comes back, this time with a vengeance. They’ll rise from the shadows ready to hack your limbs apart, ripping open your chest to sell the souls of your accumulated users to the highest bidder. They’ll demand a monetization strategy: paywall, premium, freemium, exit, ads, privacy, schmivacy.
Do you run to VCs like foreign credit card companies- hoping that one last sniff will quell your addiction to blue plastic? Because you’re convinced it’s the only thing that keeps you sane, the needs of your users, your heart and soul pure. You finish each series like Roger Ebert, A, B, C, Delta, Zayin, until you’ve exhausted all 16 planes of Unicode.
So inevitably the option comes up that you’ll be freemium, plaster ads for the stingy but charge users for their liberation. Because if you just paywalled them all, Moses would come and lead an exodus which could shame Instagram. But you’re only selling your dear daughter Persephone to users eight months a year. You’ve dabbled in a deal with the devil, and that makes your hands mighty unclean.
We have companies like Paypal and Stripe that try to do payment processing. We have Adsense, Overture, Adbrite, and DoubleClick to help shove ads in our face. Why not build another middleman, but with this simple motto:
We sell your users so you don’t have to!
Why bother with the icky stuff like working with advertisers and payment processors? We can keep that schizo Harvey Dent under our little rug so no one comes to pee on yours.
When you have your little “Buy Now!” button, instead of redirecting to Stripe or Paypal, redirect to our site. Except instead of having an option to withdraw from some credit card you stole from your mother, you have the option to see ads.
Now, in order to keep your precious conscience clean, you don’t have to even touch those ads. They’re injected automatically by means of a little script on your site. Of course there are algorithmic heuristics for placement, but it’s up to the advertising agencies to run A-B testing in order to maximize click-throughs and minimize the number of users who decide to pay.
Of course no government contract is complete without the threat of competition. Each advert would come with a button which cycles ads. But rather than cycling little adverts in-place, you’re changing the entire placement of ads around the page, switching ad style preferences. Do you want a single huge ad that burns into your retinas just once, costing the advertiser enough to give you the right to an entire ad-free month? Or do you want the slow ad… the ad that takes its time, the knife that waits years without forgetting, then slips quietly between the Three-Disc Dark Knight Trilogy Box Set Blu-Ray Collectors Edition, I mean, the subtle text ad, I said ad.
And maybe having a competition in a market for other markets is necessary, because most advertisers won’t care enough to deviate so much from the standard Google-esque 160×600 block. We might have meta-advertisers that are outsourced the logistics of effective ad placement. But at any point of this process, the user can choose to pay rather than to see ads.
Practically, is the same thing as the freemium model? Yes. But outsourcing the logistics of payment processing, ad placement, and getting money lets you focus on the stuff that truly matters, and work, perhaps in perpetuity in that socialist welfare state of ideas VCs are meant to feign.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea.