I want to be the customer, not the product

If you follow this sort of thing, you already know about IFTTT. It’s a new web service that enables non-programmers to compose other web services. The acronym expands to If This Then That, and here are some ways you can use the metaphor:

If I am tagged in a Facebook photo, then save the photo to Evernote

If the library sends email saying my book on hold is ready, send me a text message

My colleague Scott Hanselman says this is bloody brilliant and I agree. It’s the next step in a journey that began for me back in 1999 when I mashed up Alta Vista’s search engine with Yahoo! directories to measure the mindshare of sites by category. More recently Yahoo! Pipes made service mashing easier for non-programmers. Now IFTTT enables everyone to play. Wonderful!

So why am I less enthusiastic about IFTT than I thought I would be? There are two related reasons. First, here’s what IFTTT says when you ask it to activate its Twitter channel on your behalf:

This application will be able to:

  • Read Tweets from your timeline.
  • See who you follow, and follow new people.
  • Update your profile.
  • Post Tweets for you.
  • Access your direct messages.

Excellent! This is an example of OAuth, a protocol that enables you to delegate powers to IFTTT without giving up credentials. Most of the services you can use with IFTTT support OAuth, and that represents another huge step forward for the web.

What if I only want to give IFTTT the power to tweet on my behalf, though, and not give up access to my private direct messages? More generally, how can I think about the tradeoffs involved in delegating all versus some versus no powers to IFTTT, across a range of services I might authorize it to use on my behalf?

This leads to the second and broader concern. If I’m not paying for the product, I am the product. As is true for many free services on the web today, I have no contractual relationship with IFTTT. I pay for the service it provides by surrendering access to my data. OAuth helps me negotiate how much access, but if I give up none then IFTTT is powerless.

Why, though, can’t I pay for the product instead of being the product? I want IFTTT to work for me, I want to pay for the service, and in return I want it to promise never to keep or use any of the data it exchanges on my behalf. I realize this may not be a popular option anytime soon. But it’s time to start the conversation. Services don’t only want to be free, they also want to be valuable. That’s rarely a choice nowadays. It needs to become one.

6 Comments

  1. Today I consume quite a few services that I wish I could pay for. In some cases that is because the service collects personal data I wish they wouldn’t or serves me up ads I don’t want to see. In some cases it is because I worry the service will disappear some day if it isn’t profitable. But in nearly all of these cases I wouldn’t have started using the service and discovered how useful it was if the service hadn’t been free. So it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. Too bad the National Public Radio model (offer for free, conduct fundraising drives) doesn’t work more broadly, but most indications are that it doesn’t (Wikipedia may be the exception).

    1. The iPhone/iPad/iPod game model with ad supported free versions and ad free paid versions works well. I tried Words with Friends, liked it, hated the ads, bought the app. I don’t have much evidence of it working outside that space, though.

  2. Information literacy in today’s world demands that people better understand the cost and trade-offs of that “free” model. I doubt most people understand how much of “the product” they really are. Even scarier, an entire generation growing up with no historical context for understanding what “paid” Internet services really are?

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